It’s hard to know what to make of The May Festival.

Internationally, it is revered as one of the world’s great choral festivals. For many Greater Cincinnatians, the festival’s annual two-week season is the musical event of the fine arts calendar.

And yet to most locals, The May Festival is like a piece of furniture that’s been sitting in the corner of the basement since . . . well, you’re not sure just how long it’s been around. It’s there, but you don’t really notice it anymore.

Bud Babcock had been active in church choirs ever since he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1974. For 20 years, that satisfied his musical Muse. But when a woman in his choir at the Montgomery Community Church joined the May Festival Chorus, he got intrigued.

“But to be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about it,” says Babcock, 57, a retired Procter & Gamble executive. “I knew that the May Festival chorus sang nice Christmas concerts. But I had no idea what I was getting into.”

That’s understandable. The May Festival is about as far as you can get from pop music. This year’s offerings include a little-known Rachmaninoff opera, a rarely performed Beethoven piece for piano, chorus and orchestra, and works by a pair of 16th Century Renaissance composers.

Hardly mainstream. But then, this is what The May Festival does. It unabashedly embraces performances that are not for everyone.

What a novel concept.

“Everything related to music in the city has grown out of The May Festival, including the Symphony.”

Guy LaJeunesse

In an arts and entertainment environment that often plays to the lowest common denominator, The May Festival dares to woo people with rarified musical tastes.

And somehow, it has succeeded for 137 years. The May Festival, founded in 1873, predates the Cincinnati Art Museum (1881), the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1895) everything but UC’s College Conservatory of Music, which traces its roots back to 1867.

“This truly is Cincinnati’s seminal arts organization,” says Festival spokesman Guy LaJeunesse. “Everything related to music in the city has grown out of The May Festival including the Symphony.”

But how have they done it? Savvy strategic planning? Dumb luck? Visionary leadership? In truth, there is probably some of each.

For nearly a century, the Festival was an every-other-year event. It wasn’t until 1967 that it took the radical step of staging an annual festival.

Even so, performances by The May Festival Chorus, the 140-voice volunteer group that is the heart of the organization, are infrequent. They perform occasionally with the Cincinnati Symphony, and host an annual “Carolfest” in December.

Any musical institution with a big enough budget can hire world-class soloists and an all-professional orchestra. But it takes a chorus of size and stature to perform masterworks such as Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” or Mozart’s “C Minor Mass,” choral epics that have anchored the Festival’s success since its founding.

And that’s where leadership comes in. The May Festival has had a string of masterful musicians at the helm.

Robert Porco, director of the festival’s choruses, celebrates his 20th year with the company this spring. Even more remarkable is Music Director James Conlon, who took the position in 1979, when he was just 29. He’ll be 60 on March 18, meaning he has spent more than half of his distinguished career as The May Festival’s music director.

He is also music director of the Los Angeles Opera and Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, as well as being one of the world’s most sought-after guest conductors. In the weeks leading up to the Festival’s May 14 opening, he will have conducted at La Scala in Milan, Rome and Madrid, and laid the groundwork for a full-scale staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle that debuts in Los Angeles exactly one week after the May Festival closes on May 22.

He is, by any measure, one of classical music’s superstars. And yet he stays firmly attached to The May Festival.

“It’s almost unbelievable in today’s market that someone, especially someone of his stature, would stay that long,” says Elmer Thomas, professor emeritus of conducting at CCM, who led the May Festival’s choruses from 1969 to 1974.

Indeed, nearly every conversation about Conlon ends up being sprinkled with words like “knowledgeable” and “prepared” and “generous.”

“The fact that the Festival hasn’t limited itself to the narrow scope of major orchestral/choral works has given it a much wider audience appeal,” says Patrick Coyle, director of St. Paul United Methodist Church choir in Madeira and artistic director of the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus. “Today, the May Festival appeals to all sorts of people - people who love oratorio, people who love opera, people who love art songs.”

This year, the ultra-refined choices are balanced by more popular favorites such as “Boris Godunov” and the “1812 Overture,” along with works by popular classical composers such as Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein and William Walton.

“Every season is filled with the most amazing musical adventures,” says Babcock, in his 15th season with the Chorus. He talks of the camaraderie, rigorous demands, about how it becomes his defining commitment.

How committed? On Father’s Day of 2000 — just weeks after the May Festival’s finale — he had a brain aneurysm while jogging. He was lucky. The pain had stopped him just feet away from a neurologist who was watering his lawn. Yet Babcock was unconscious for a week.

After a few months of arduous rehabilitation, he was ready for May Festival rehearsals in the fall. “I didn’t miss a single rehearsal,” says Babcock, not a hint of irony in his voice. “I guess my timing was perfect.”

He still has a shoebox filled with cards and letters from well-wishers.

“I think more than half of them are from people in the chorus,” he says. “You know that phrase, ‘shared hardship’? That’s what binds us together, I think.” He adds, “I hope I’m there for another 15 years. Or 20. Or more.” ■