Sunday, May 23, 2004

Laughter is music to the maestro's ears


Cincinnati May Festival

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Robert Porco, director of choruses, rehearses for the May Festival.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/ERNEST COLEMAN
Robert Porco has had intense emotional and musical highs during his 15 years as director of choruses for the Cincinnati May Festival. But faced with one of the toughest schedules in the music industry, sometimes he and his chorus just have to laugh.

"We work hard, but when you have three-hour rehearsals, it's really not possible to bear down for three hours," Porco says. "Laughing is not only psychologically therapeutic, but it works the diaphragm."

Porco will conduct the world premiere of "All Things are Passing" by Stephen Paulus in a May Festival concert today in Covington's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption. The current and alumni members of the 140-voice May Festival Chorus commissioned the piece in honor of Porco's 15th anniversary as choral director.

"I remember early on, a big picture of me was in (the Enquirer). We had a Sunday rehearsal, and I came in, and everybody had cut it out and put it on their faces," says Porco, laughing as he recalled looking out at a room full of his doppelgangers. "We have an end-of-the-year dinner, and it basically turns out to be a roast of me."

IF YOU GO
What: Cincinnati May Festival, Music for a Sacred Place. Robert Porco, conductor; James Bagwell, conductor; The May Festival Chorus; May Festival Youth Chorus.
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington
Tickets: Sold out. The May Festival continues Friday and Saturday in Music Hall. 381-3300 or www.mayfestival.com
CONDUCTOR'S HIGHLIGHTS
First time Robert Porco conducted a concert at the May Festival: To be honest, I hadn't been in front of a professional orchestra the caliber of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, so it was a thrill. It's always intimidating . . . But hopefully that factor is no longer present."

Three highlights: Last year's (Mendelssohn) Elijah was pretty thrilling for me. It's difficult, and the chorus was really into the drama. Bach's B Minor Mass is at the top of my lists of pieces that I love. In 1993, I did Belshazzar's Feast (by William Walton); that was a highlight, too.

Toughest piece he's ever taught the chorus: "Hindemith's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed (1995). Robert Shaw conducted, and boy, was it hard. It's almost never performed."

Cheers also helped relieve the tension of learning a new piece in time for today's concert. Six weeks ago, the composer had not yet finished it. But when the score finally appeared, choristers toasted the director with champagne.

"The piece had arrived, and this was their dedication. It was such a moving thing," he says. "But that's the kind of people they are, and the kind of relationship we have."

Being a chorus director, says Porco, who also directs the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, involves "a lot of psychology." He is a perfectionist, accustomed to preparing choruses for the best orchestras and conductors in the world.

The challenge for the May Festival Chorus is to perform five programs in two weeks. This year, the schedule includes Handel's oratorio Messiah (not performed at the festival since 1987), Mozart's Requiem (in an edition the chorus has never sung, by Robert Levin), and Mahler's massive Symphony No. 8, "Symphony of a Thousand."

"You walk the line, because sometimes you do have to be very serious," he says, admitting he has delivered a few stern words. "A number of times I've just lost it. One time was at intermission, when I came storming back there and said, 'what the hell was that?' "

If he has high expectations for his singers, he's even tougher on himself. In former years, he would pace back and forth at the back of Music Hall during their performances, a habit he now tries to curb.

Is there something he wishes he had done better?

"Every day. Every rehearsal," Porco says. "I'm one of the great second-guessers. Was this good enough? Is this polished enough? Did we have too good a time in the last rehearsal?"

He prepares the chorus year 'round, for concerts with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Pops, recordings and its own holiday shows. About 10 times, he has conducted the choral and orchestral forces himself - a rarity for a choral conductor.

The chorus' and conductor's demanding schedule during May - 13 three-hour rehearsals and five concerts jammed into 16 days - has made them unusually close-knit.

"It's almost like being in boot camp. The closeness and relationships that develop is really extraordinary, and I don't think you find it anywhere else," Porco says.

Another strength is the longevity of the singers - "the core of people who have stayed with it over the years, know the routine, and consequently they build up a memory bank of repertoire," Porco says. Two singers (Earl Jones and Cynthia Scanio) are celebrating their 30th year, and others have sung with the festival for 20 to 25 years.

Despite their successes, he's always striving to be better.

"I don't believe in local standards. I tell them, there's only one standard in music. If it's good in Cincinnati, you should be able to take it anywhere," he says.

E-mail jgelfand@enquirer.com




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