Chorus Member Profile
Robert Porco: Director of Choruses
Robert Porco, known in more familiar circles as Bob, is a man of many passions – music, food, and of course, his chorus family. Always modest, Bob tends to downplay his many achievements, so on the occasion of his big birthday, we’d like to tell you a little more about our amazing Director of Choruses.
Bob was born in Steubenville, Ohio, a small steel town near Pittsburgh along the Ohio River, into a family with strong Italian roots. His father worked long hours in the local steel mill, and Bob has fond memories of his father coming home late at night and inviting him downstairs to enjoy some steak together as a midnight snack.
A self-described “slovenly student,” Bob was pushed by his father to pursue higher education to avoid working in the steel mill. So, when he took the SATs and scored well in math and music, he felt those were his best career prospects. For Bob, music was the only thing, so upon acceptance to the Ohio State University, Bob declared his major in voice and music education and eventually earned two bachelor’s degrees.
In his student teaching experience at a low income elementary school, Bob was a hit with the kids. He suspects that being an adult male role model had quite a bit to do with his great rapport with the students, but he is certain that playing the accordion for them had more to do with it.
(Did you know that Bob started playing accordion when he was six-years-old? He kept it up over the years, and in the 1960s, he even played in a dance band called “The Embers,” alongside clarinet virtuoso Richard Stoltzman.)
Bob stayed on at Ohio State to earn his Master’s degree in music history and theory, and found friendship in a circle of other music students. While Bob had no formal classical music training prior to college, his social experience with these musicians exposed him to a variety of classical repertoire through casual listening. One of the works they included in the heavy rotation was the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, which would come in quite handy for Bob.
After Ohio State, Bob applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to pursue his degree in musicology. On the entrance exam, applicants were asked to write down a piece of classical repertoire, and so Bob picked up his pencil and wrote down the score for the theme to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 from memory. Even though he had never made a specific effort to memorize the piece nor had he even seen a score, he was able to jot down the music – in the right key, no less. It was at this point that Bob says his life became “one big coincidence.”
A professor at UNC Chapel Hill asked Bob to fill in as conductor for the University Glee Club, as the current director was going on sabbatical. This was Bob’s first conducting position, and as it turned out, the conductor was not interested in taking back the position after sabbatical. So, the job went to Bob. Within a year, he took the group from a casual social affair, with a tendency toward crude humor and mediocre music, to performing Josquin des Prez’s Renaissance Mass in concert. When asked about his ability to build artistic quality so quickly, Bob responds, “People are what you expect of them.”
One person knew just how much could be expected of Bob, and that was Robert Shaw, a well-respected and celebrated choral conductor known from New York City to San Diego. Bob credits Shaw with changing his life by opening doors and giving him strong recommendations for many positions, including those with the Cleveland Orchestra, Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, and Indianapolis Symphonic Choir.
Bob is an inspiration to the May Festival Chorus. Long time chorus members point to him for their continued participation, citing his standard of excellence, endearing stories, sense of humor, and genuine care for every member of the chorus. In addition to being a generally wonderful person, Bob’s dedication to the May Festival is remarkable. A resident of suburban Cleveland, Bob drives over 40,000 miles in a typical year to and from rehearsals and performances in Cincinnati, usually making the 250-mile drive back to Cleveland after Tuesday night rehearsals. (The traffic is much better at night, and he coasts straight through on post-rehearsal energy.) While he doesn’t always listen to music on the way home, there are a few standards that make their way through his car speakers. Give a listen to Bob’s driving playlist here.
Bob has many, many fond memories from his long, illustrious career, but one in particular strikes our hearts. Once, when Bob’s father was in his 80s, the May Festival featured a concert comprised entirely of Italian music, which Bob would conduct. The elder Mr. Porco, a proud Italian, had never seen his son conduct a concert, and furthermore, he had never been to Cincinnati. On this special occasion, Bob’s wife Diana made special arrangements to have Bob’s father attend the concert. After the concert, Bob learned that during the concert his father had leaned over to a fellow audience member and said, “That’s my son.”
All of us at the May Festival are just as proud of Bob, and wish him the happiest birthday with many returns.