Sunday, May 13, 2001

Preaching to the chorus

Whether it's Cincinnati or Cleveland, Robert Porco pours his heart into making singers sound good

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CLEVELAND — Robert Porco leans back in his seat, hands clasped behind his head, and gazes up at the Severance Hall stage. Its beautifully renovated walls are aglow in pale beige, glistening with aluminum leaf. As director of choruses for the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus and Cleveland Orchestra Chorus — two of the United States' finest volunteer choruses — Mr. Porco is something of a rarity.

img   • Occupation: Director of choruses, Cincinnati May Festival and the Cleveland Orchestra
  • Born: March 25, 1941, Steubenville, Ohio
  • Current home: Cincinnati
  • Family: Married Diana Martin, June 13, 1999. A daughter, Laura, 32, by a previous marriage.
  • Education: Two bachelor degrees and a master's degree, Ohio State University; doctoral work at the University of North Carolina.
  • Career highlights: Prepared choruses for Pierre Boulez, Christoph von Dohnanyi, James Conlon, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Andre Previn, Kurt Sanderling, Robert Shaw and Franz Welser-Most. CSO subscription conducting debut in Haydn's The Creation, October 1996. In 1988, conducted Leonard Bernstein's Mass in the Tanglewood Music Festival celebration of Bernstein's 70th birthday.
        He regularly prepares symphony choruses for the world's great maestros, has a high degree of musicianship and knows how to inspire precision in his singers. But rarer still, he can get on the podium and lead the orchestra.

        “In the beginning, to be honest, I was kind of awestruck just to step on that stage, because of the history of the hall,” Mr. Porco says softly. “Even before all of this (gesturing around him) the Cleveland Orchestra under (George) Szell was one of my ideals . . .

        “So, there's a lot of history here, and certainly, a very well-run, first-class organization.”

        Next week, Mr. Porco will be in Cincinnati, where he is preparing the May Festival Chorus for its season, opening Friday in Music Hall. He will conduct J.S. Bach's B Minor Mass on Saturday.

        But on this late April evening, the choral conductor is sitting in Severance Hall in a tuxedo with his shirt collar loosened, bow tie hanging out of his coat pocket, looking unusually relaxed. In two hours, his Cleveland Orchestra Chorus will be performing Berlioz's Requiem. It is their final Severance Hall concert of the year.

        Next season, Mr. Porco, 60, will make his subscription conducting debut with the Cleveland Orchestra, which ranks among the top five in the country. He is the most likely person in the nation to be the successor to choral legend Robert Shaw, who died in 1999.

        “It is sure he is a rare person. He may be the leading man in the country right now. I'd like to think so,” says May Festival music director James Conlon.

Standing in the shadows

        Choral conductors are usually unseen and unheard until they appear onstage for final bows.

        “Sometimes I come on the stage and people wonder, who's that?” Mr. Porco says, laughing. “I'm accustomed to it. But it's difficult to prepare a piece, rehearse it, and then sit back and not be involved in the actual music-making. That takes a certain amount of will power.”

        Choral conductors can disappear behind the conductor, says the distinguished conductor/composer Pierre Boulez, who was conducting Berlioz's Requiem for the first time. “I find that is unfair. In a big choral work, they are as important as the conductor, if not more important.”

        Mr. Porco also is an extra set of ears, who listens to balance in the hall.

        “Especially in the Requiem, where you have these brass groups in the hall, what I hear (on the podium) is very different from what he hears,” Mr. Boulez says. “I am totally confident in what he says.”

        But, as far as musical interpretation goes, Mr. Porco has learned to put his ego aside.

        “That's hard, not only here but any place — with Jim Conlon or Jesus (Lopez-Cobos),” he says. “It's their performance. And if I disagree with the phrasing . . . ” he shrugs. “Sometimes I'll rehearse things in two or three different ways, so the chorus will get used to them.”

Less pacing these days
               Mr. Porco is demanding. Always pushing his singers to be better. In his pocket are three pages of notes from last night's performance, that he will go over with them in the 7 p.m. warm-up session. “There's no reason why this chorus cannot be as great in its area as this orchestra is,” he says, motioning to the stage being set up for the concert. “I think they're starting to believe it.”

        Where will Mr. Porco be when his chorus is singing? In past years, he could be seen pacing, back and forth, at the back of Music Hall, Riverbend — wherever his chorus was performing. But no more.

        “I don't pace as much. . . . At the May Festival, they want people to sit. Here, you're too visible to the audience if you're pacing. So I'll sit up there (nods to the balcony) or I'll stand at that exit. The choristers always know where I am.”

        “(Mr. Porco) has very high standards, and he demands a high degree of discipline in the rehearsals,” says Keith Norman, a baritone and member of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus for 21 years. “He doesn't allow talking or goofing off when we're rehearsing. We're always very focused.”

        The chorus needed that discipline when, in March, they performed The Book of the Seven Seals, an oratorio by Franz Schmidt.

        “It's probably the toughest thing I've ever had to prepare,” Mr. Porco says. “We had tenors locked up in one room with a pianist; sopranos in separate sectionals going on for three hours, just learning notes. And you'd be very pleased if they learned five pages.”

        The concert, under music director-designate Franz Welser-Most, was a huge success.

        “It was one of my happiest moments,” Mr. Porco says. “The successes sometimes are more gratifying when you have to work so hard to get there. A year ago, this chorus would have said, there's no way we can do this.”

Constructive criticism
               At 7 p.m. sharp, chorus members are loosening their shoulders, and warming up their voices in a rehearsal room. As they vocalize, Mr. Porco paces back and forth, listening and singing along while he directs them.

        He praises last night's performance. Then he is all business as he reads down his list.

        “There was a mess last night with seating; I hate it when that happens,” he says, as they count heads. Next, he praises the sopranos, adding, “When you leave the vibrato in the car, it's so lovely.”

        They discuss cues. Maestro Boulez is a subtle conductor, they must watch him closely to know when to stand, sit and sing. “If he does not nod his head, get very quietly up at the beginning of the Sanctus,” Mr. Porco instructs.

        “The diction needs to be better in all the soft places,” he says. “Men, your whole third movement needs better text.”

        “Number 5 was terrific, except — always an except,” he says, shaking his head. “Measures 22 and 23 are always out of tune. I don't know if it's a soprano or an alto; it needs to be fixed.”

        Finally, he comes to the end of his list.

        “At measure 174, I wrote a note, but I can't remember why,” he says, perplexed. “Maybe because it was spectacular.” He looks up and smiles.

        They laugh. They know he is nervous for them. “I try hard to sit still up there; it's very difficult,” he tells his singers. “I hope to see all of you this summer. I hope we continue to soar.”

        Posted nearby is the Plain Dealer review.

        “The chorus . . . sang with remarkable smoothness of ensemble and attention to nuances,” wrote critic Donald Rosenberg. “The chorus has had a magnificent season.”

        Mr. Porco knows he is hard on his singers. “But I'm not nasty-tough,” he says. “I'm not a yeller and screamer. I used to be, when I was younger. I found out that it was counter-productive to intimidate people, and that it was done mainly for the ego of the conductor. And the other thing was, I used to feel worse than they did.”

Tough as he needs to be
               On the Monday before their first performance in Severance Hall, he was not happy. He asked all listeners to leave, and made sure the doors were closed.

        “Then I just really let them have it for 10 minutes. Not yelling, but I just said, what I just heard is simply not acceptable. By Tuesday, it was immensely better.

        “What I'm hoping to do is instill the great sense of pride that a chorus like this should have, and a sense of striving for perfection. It's establishing a standard within their minds, the sense that everything is possible and we can achieve that.”

        In the concert later, their sound is refined, seamless and expressive, echoing the superb playing of the Cleveland Orchestra. On the podium, Mr. Boulez leads an exquisitely detailed and moving performance.

        The chorus begins the Requiem on a plush cushion of sound. Diction is clear, even in the powerful Tuba Mirum, with its four brass choirs blazing from the corners of the balcony.

        Then, something unexpected happens. During the a cappella fifth movement — the most prayerful moment of this monumental work — a cellular phone rings in the audience. Not one chorister's face twitches a muscle; they are concentrating hard on their phrasing, and it is ravishing.

        “Mr. Porco is the best thing that's happened to us in years,” says Sylvia Kaden, an alto. “He's a great admirer of Robert Shaw.”

        Mr. Porco evokes the memory of Mr. Shaw often. The choral giant created an American choral tradition, and was a frequent guest conductor at the May Festival.

        “Robert was a mentor. He had a hand in almost all my career moves. I think (the Cleveland Orchestra) called him, and he said, there's only one person, but you'll not get him to leave Cincinnati. Interesting,” he says, as if realizing for the first time the chain of events and the impact Mr. Shaw had on them.

Back to Ohio
               Since taking the Cleveland job three years ago, Mr. Porco has come to know every inch of the 250-mile stretch of I-71 between the two cities. He and his wife of almost two years, Diana Martin, are searching south of Cleveland for a “large, older home on a couple of acres, just for privacy.”

        He is keeping his May Festival position, which he has held since 1989.

        “I'm devoted to the Cincinnati chorus. I love that chorus, too,” he says. “So we'll see how it all works out.”

        He has left his position as chairman of the choral department at Indiana University, a post he held from 1980 to 1998, and gave up his decade-long position leading the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir.

        Now, the Ohio native, who grew up in Steubenville, feels his life has come full circle.

        “It's been a wonderful string of coincidences and doors opening that I didn't even knock on,” he says.

May Festival schedule

- Preaching to the chorus
DAUGHERTY: A lemon will give that young squirt character
Unicycling across country
Greenhornes gain more fans on tour
Retired prof moved by chess sets
DEMALINE: Community gets passionate about playwriting
'Piano' teaches dramatic lesson
UC ballet teacher retiring
Ballet's Peter Pan beguiling
CCM triumphs in first performance of 'Rusalka'
Hard-core fans sing for Peace
From Mom's kitchen to you
MARTIN: Granny's pound cake rich in memories
Chefs sell soft shells in short season
Find good beers where you shop
KENDRICK: Talking ATMs sound sweet