Saturday, March 17, 2018

Simone Porter’s Engaging Janáček at SFP

Violinist Simone Porter (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco Performances (SFP) concluded its 2017–2018 Young Masters Series with a violin recital by Simone Porter. Porter is currently studying with Robert Lipsett at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, but last season she performed as soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel at the age of nineteen. Her accompanist last night was pianist Hsin-I Huang, and both of them were making their respective San Francisco debuts.

Like many emerging recitalists, Porter prepared a program that went for breadth, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at one end at Esa-Pekka Salonen at the other. There was an impressive diversity of compositional structure in her selections; but each half of the program began with a multi-movement duo sonata. Of these two the strongest impressions were left by Leoš Janáček’s only violin sonata, a piece with a somewhat rocky history.

It was originally composed in 1914, but Janáček could not find a violinist interested in performing it. In 1915 he published the second (Ballada) movement separately and set about to revise the sonata as a whole. The completed revision was first performed in 1922. As a point of reference for Janáček’s activities as a composer, his best known works between 1914 and 1922 would probably be his opera Káťa Kabanová (first performed in 1921) and his symphonic rhapsody in three movements, “Taras Bulba” (completed in 1918).

I have SFP to thank for introducing me to Janáček’s violin sonata, since I first heard it in January of 2009 at an SFP recital given by violinist Christian Tetzlaff accompanied by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. Sadly, last night was only my second performance encounter, although I wrote about a recording for when harmonia mundi reissued an album of violinist Isabelle Faust accompanied by pianist Ewa Kupiec. Like the composer’s two string quartets, this sonata shows the composer’s skill at bringing intense dramatic qualities to seemingly abstract compositional forms. In the case of the sonata, the listener is so drawn into Janáček’s rhetorical skills that (s)he barely notices the solid foundation of traditional sonata movement forms. Last night’s performance brought back fond memories of those rhetorical skills, owing as much to the intricate interplay between Porter and Huang as to Porter’s own solo work.

Would that the same could have been said of their approach to the opening selection, Mozart’s K. 376 sonata in F major. To her credit Huang summoned just the right lightness of touch to capture the high spirits of the music without overplaying the many show-off gestures that Mozart required from the keyboard. Unfortunately, Porter approached her part with the same uncompromising intensity that listeners would subsequently encounter in her Janáček performance. Where Mozart was concerned, however, this came across as challenging Huang’s keyboard work, rather than complementing it.

Indeed, forcefulness came across as the strong suit in Porter’s hand of rhetorical skills. This certainly saw her through with a bold approach to Salonen’s “Lachen Verlernt” (laughter unlearned). However, her performance did not necessarily give a credible account of the work’s structural foundation (a chaconne) or the source of its rhetorical stance (Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, the title being taken from a line of text in the libretto).

Once again, I have SFP to thank for my listening experience with this piece, since I first heard it performed by Jennifer Koh in Herbst Theatre in March of 2010. On that occasion it was performed with a projected video created by Tal Rosner, which tended to distract more than enhance. On the other hand Koh had programmed “Lachen Verlernt” to follow a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo partita in D minor, which concludes with a chaconne movement of monumental proportions, when compared with the structures of all the preceding movements. That “predisposition” made for a far more engaging listening experience than Porter was able to summon up last night.

The remainder of the program consisted of relatively short pieces. These included three selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 64 score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, arranged from violin and piano by D. Gruness. (The first of these,”Dance of the Knights” was mistakenly labeled “Montagues and Capulets” in the program.) There was also the “Nigun” movement from Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem suite and Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane.” The encore selection was Fritz Kreisler’s transcription of “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” the fourth of the seven songs in Antonín Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs cycle. All of these selections were given adept accounts with solid technique, but none of them seemed to match technical command with a firm sense of a rhetorical setting.

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