Arts & Entertainment

Involved Career Is Far From Ho-Hum

Tenor Robert Petillo's Busy Schedule Keeps F.C. Resident Singing Happy Tune

Fifty-two-year-old Robert Petillo has performed operas, arias, passions, choral pieces and just about any other vocal musical arrangement you can think of. In fact, virtually any local concert featuring classical music or musicians likely has Robert Petillo's name attached to it in some form.

“It's just all whatever I'm called to do,” Petillo says of his numerous collaborations and projects with local musical notables. He often performs with local pianist Alex Hassan, as well as Jacklyn Anderson, a violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra, City Choir of Washington conductor Robert Shafer, Stanley Engebretson, the Director of Choral Activities at GMU, and many others.

A native of New Jersey, Robert Petillo started studying music in earnest at Rutgers University, where he earned a BA in musical arts in 1978. Then, in 1979, he moved to Maryland to attend graduate school at the University of Maryland. He earned his Masters Degree in music in 1982 with several recitals. Petillo wasn't finished however, and added a Doctorate in musical arts to his list of academic credentials in 1994.

In 1985, after a year of work on his doctorate, the 29-year-old Petillo was contacted by a friend who told him of an opening for a tenor in the Army Chorus. At that time he was supporting himself by working on the Maryland Police Department's computer network, a very new concept back then.

“I was ambivalent about having to attend basic training with 17 year-olds,” he recalls. Fortunately for him and the Army Chorus, he shoved his doubts aside.

“A few months later I found myself freezing my butt off in basic training thinking 'Oh God, what have I got myself into?'”

While officially a member of the armed forces, with a rank of Sgt. Major, and probably more knowledgeable in the ways of firearms than your average Tenor, his main duty in the Army is “to build morale and maintain the esprit decorps,” as he puts it. “We would only be called into active duty in really dire situations.”

Army musicians such as Petillo are a staple for any army function, including funerals, parades, speeches, black tie dinners and banquets.

“Because of the particular power of singing words, the way songs can move people more than just instrumental music, we're often called to sing at diplomatic dinners at the White House, or at the home of the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs.”

He also sang during the state funeral ceremonies for former President Ronald Reagan. His duties do occasionally stretch beyond musical engagements however. Such was the case in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon.

“We were all down there working shifts,” he recalls.

Petillo moved to Falls Church in 1998. A year later, he met pianist Alex Hassan. They met through their children, who were attending Thomas Jefferson Elementary School. The two started talking music when Petillo noticed Hassan's piano and sheet music scattered about.

“Alex is one of the finest players of the syncopated style in the country, probably the world,” says Petillo.

In 2002, the two performed together in London for the centennial of the birth of Billy Mayerl, a famous British piano composer. The two perform recitals locally, somewhat regularly, at venues such as the Fellowship Hall.
Petillo's contributions to the local musical community extends beyond performing. For a while, Robert Petillo was the interim music director for the Falls Church and he regularly sings with their choir.

“It wouldn't have worked if I hadn't lived right down the street,” Robert says of managing the responsibility of directing two choirs and an orchestra in addition to his normal musical activities. “It's a full time job and I was trying to squeeze it in.”
Professionally, one of Robert Petillo's main fortes is Oratorio, pieces of music that are performed by a chorus and an orchestra, whose subject matter is usually something sacred.

“Oratorio is a lot of what I do, I'm not someone who sings a lot of opera,” although he has sung some to be sure. “A lot of the major performances I've done have been [Johan Sebastian] Bach's 'St. John Passion' and 'St. Matthew Passion.' The evangelist, the narrator of the passion, typically has a higher voice, while the voice of Christ is typically a lower one.”

Petillo is fluent in German, from long study and visits with his wife's German relatives. His fluency is useful for singing German language passions, as a good understanding of vocal inflection and the nuances of the language are critical for an exacting performer. “They are very high and very expressive, and very demanding musically. They are probably what I'm best known for.”
Petillo will perform Bach's monumental B Minor Mass at the Schlesinger Hall in Alexandria with the New Dominion Chorale on Sunday, April 27. For tickets and more information, visit