By Ava Figliuzzi
By the close of violinist Simone Porter’s Feb. 14 debut at the Flagler Museum, she had developed a warm rapport with the audience. Alongside pianist Rohan De Silva, well known for over two decades as Itzhak Perlman’s accompanist, the duo presented a delightful blend that spanned all corners of the repertoire.
A sparkling rendition of Beethoven’s first sonata for piano and violin (in D Major, Op. 12, No. 1), a pairing of early Baroque and 21st-century unaccompanied violin works, and the Violin Sonata by Richard Strauss — a pinnacle of late Romanticism — revealed the panache and range of both musicians.
The 26-year-old Porter was a 2015 recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant and has recently debuted with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and in Boston’s Celebrity Series. She plays on a 1740 Carlo Bergonzi violin made in Cremona, Italy.
The piano used that evening was an attractive 120-year-old Steinway art-case piano, gifted to Henry Flagler’s wife. While the instrument is a piece of history worth preserving, incapacities from age are unavoidable, unlike the string family, whose members can be coaxed into maturation over decades or centuries with proper care. However, De Silva’s mastery overshadowed the mechanical issues in an instrument of this vintage.
Porter’s Beethoven was stylistically coherent with the period piano’s intimate sound — both suited to a modestly sized venue rather than a symphonic concert hall. Her vibrato was a decisive ornament, and she tastefully inserted expression with bow speed and articulation rather than overly sustained lines. Her interpretation was exciting and nuanced, occasionally treating the highest note in a phrase as the low point in intensity. I found these choices a welcome contrast to the trap of mimicking popular recordings.
The interlocking sixteenth-note runs in the Allegro con brio were incredibly precise, and De Silva’s interspersed sforzandos were not overly forceful. In the Andante con moto, the duo set up a moment of peace going into the fourth variation by relaxing the tempo, an appropriate choice to move from the impassioned minore in the third variation back to A major. Excellent treatment of articulation by both Porter and De Silva in the Rondo banished any concerns of balance, and the players maintained a driving yet singing energy.
After expressing her gratitude to Flagler and the audience, Porter introduced Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Passacaglia (completed as the last of his Mystery Sonatas in 1676) and contemporary American composer Andrew Norman’s Sabina (composed for viola in 2009 and arranged for violin in 2013). Porter’s philosophy on the sacredness of attention ties these works together — a poignant aspect of live performance. Both pieces possess a wandering, transcendent quality that Porter likens to prayer.
A passacaglia form is a set of variations above a looped bassline, and the Biber invoked divine energy in both the purity of tone and intonation and the grounding repetition. The ostinato motive was intelligible throughout, and she maintained a darker tone to differentiate it from the variations above. As with Beethoven, Porter used vibrato sparingly. She employed the Baroque technique of grouping realized harmonies together and purposefully treating an interval’s down bow heavier and longer than the up bow. Reaching over the technical intricacies was Porter’s absolute emotional unity with the music; it was a pleasure to experience.
Sabina opened with gentle bowing on top of the violin’s bridge, emitting a whisper without a pitch. The music, intended to paint rays of sunlight in an ancient Roman cathedral, gradually unfurled from tranquility into divine, resonant chaos employing dramatic glissandi and ponticello (a bow stroke close to the bridge that produces a metallic timbre). Porter’s live rendition of Sabina was stunning in its journey between quiet thoughtfulness and slightly unhinged virtuosity.
After intermission, De Silva rejoined Porter for Richard Strauss’s Sonata (in E-flat, Op. 18). In stark relief to the first half, Porter showed off a hearty, amorous tone that embodied the heroic quality well. De Silva did not overpower her, nor did she have a pressed or strained tone. This balance might have been thanks to the absence of a modern piano.
The exposition of the Allegro ma non troppo explores a secondary theme in C minor; I felt the confident opening character leaked into what could’ve been more longing. Similarly, the second movement lacked not for beauty but for heartbreak. It may be that the lives of young performers haven’t wounded them enough to portray such emotions. I would argue that her first half exquisitely accomplished an emotional range far beyond her years, and Strauss himself wrote the piece at age 23.
In the finale, Porter came alive and gave the biting exchange of motives a healthy dose of ferocity. Persuasive communication with De Silva lent itself to the victorious feeling, and the lyrical second theme was allowed to relax to a decent effect. Overall sturdy execution let Strauss’ story line take center stage for the perfect ending to a Valentine’s evening program.