By Ava Figliuzzi
Caught between two days of Barber Violin Concerto performances with the Modesto (Calif.) Symphony, Simone Porter says she embraces her inner spontaneity when playing the same work two nights in a row.
“I try to make an entirely fresh performance. If I try to re-create anything that happened the previous night, that’s where the danger starts happening,” Porter said Saturday in a Zoom interview from California.
Porter’s philosophy on the differences between practice and performance have become more top of mind for the 26-year-old violinist since she took six months off from playing her instrument during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. That thought process will be much in evidence during her Tuesday night recital at the Flagler Museum with Rohan De Silva, the Sri Lankan pianist best-known as Itzhak Perlman’s regular accompanist.
Her program offers beautifully paired repertoire. Moments of prayerful contemplation, a theme she is currently pursuing, will be demonstrated with a performance of Richard Strauss’s early Violin Sonata (in E-flat, Op. 18) matched with De Silva’s reading of another early work, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 1 (in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1).
“Working with [De Silva] is seriously a privilege and he’s taught me so much. Learning [Strauss] by his side and through his guidance was really, really wonderful and it’s become one of my favorite pieces to play.”
Porter added that she has been eager to collaborate with De Silva since first meeting him half a decade ago at a festival in Missouri.
The center of Tuesday night’s program features 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 (originally for solo viola, arranged for violin in 2013). Porter maintains that her preparation remains consistent between contemporary and standard works, noting that contemporary music has helped restructure her approach to standard repertoire.
“It’s not that different to me, honestly,” she said. “I approach them with the exact same sort of steps of preparation, and if anything, a better sense of wonder, discovery, and interrogation.”
Porter, who grew up in Seattle, has been performing internationally as a professional soloist since her Seattle Symphony debut at the age of 10. After receiving an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2015, she has continued to garner recognition as a versatile, young voice in the industry. Her calendar balances contemporary commissions and premieres in addition to regular recitals and concerto appearances with major symphony orchestras.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a momentous effect on musicians and the arts in general. Porter says the crisis dismantled the way she had practiced in her teen years. She has gradually shifted her focus away from wasting significant amounts of time on repetition for technical reassurance towards prioritizing weaker sections and mental resilience.
“COVID just made me feel like less of a violinist and more of a musician … I am trying to leave a certain amount of physicality and detail-oriented mindset behind on stage and really be present with the moment that is happening exactly now and no other time,” Porter said.
Porter recognizes this as a gratifying step in her career. She is already making these artistically independent steps to break out of the barrier that conservatory environments brand into violinists: that meticulous execution and domination over physical awkwardness is the primary driving force in performance preparation.
“It’s like when you think about your tongue so much that you don’t know where to put it … I thought so much about all the tiny, little muscle movements that are required to sound OK, basically,” she said. “I felt a little bit trapped within them.”
Since interpretations are often absorbed involuntarily through recordings, she believes modern phrase structures, such as Norman’s, that do not have decades of recording history to back them up, require mental dissection “divorced from the technique of the instrument.” She says practicing without the instrument removes an automatic approach to the standard repertoire in favor of present, intentional music-making.
“I cannot be automatic. That revolutionized how I played — that level of attention — and I loved it so much both for its content musically and just the energy of that absorption,” she said.
Then again, Porter is an unusually thoughtful musician. Her blog posts, publicly available on her website (simoneporterviolin.com), address many additional thought-provoking topics such as the internet’s manipulation of attention, the consequences of viewing music through a utilitarian mindset, and many, many book recommendations.
In one of those posts, she discusses an approach of “endless becoming,” a phrase she borrows from author Maggie Nelson’s description of her marriage, written in a dedication for her book The Argonauts.
Inspiration from Porter’s reading has assisted in dismantling the physical barriers of playing by equating attention to a cleansing, communal process — akin to a secular prayer. In a blog reflecting on the attention economy (a phrase utilized by Jenny Odell in her book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy) and philosopher Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Porter says she has become fascinated with the sacredness of pure, undiluted attention and “being present for a thing that will never exist again” in live performance.
“The sole program that [Biber and Norman] are excerpted from was very much inspired by that Simone Weil quote, ‘Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer’ … that quote really seized me. [Odell] took things of attention in terms of alignment,” she said. “It’s every aspect of yourself working in concert and oriented towards the same thing. So I put together this program that was basically all about pieces that are trying to align with something bigger than just themselves.”
This perspective informed the pairing of Biber’s Passacaglia and Norman’s Sabina. The Biber, one of the oldest performed works for solo violin, contains a four-note ostinato descent that scholars liken to the watchfulness of a guardian angel. The violin’s variations above the ostinato depict the searching of a soul alongside the angel’s guidance.
Sabina is a modern sound portrait of an ancient Roman church at sunrise, where the configuration of light and space became transcendent for Norman. Both paint a human experience in alignment with a greater-than-oneself, divine feeling.
Porter says she became fascinated with the concept of undiluted attention during COVID because “all of the undiluted attention could really only be with oneself … the opportunity to be engaged, even by myself, makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger.”
Porter says literature has always played a therapeutic role in her day-to-day life, often matching her travel with books’ settings. She admits to having a particular affinity for all things themed. However, because she has lived in Los Angeles for several years, she has run out of California-related books to read. Instead, she is reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by anthropologist David Graeber, and has found it surprisingly engaging.
She compares the verbal precision of narratives to “little mental experiments that help me get closer [to] crystallize what I want to express.”
“When I’m searching for specificity in music, the metaphors and comparisons that I’m using are largely literary. So when I’m thinking about a phrase that’s really long, I will think about it like a run on sentence, or when I’m trying to think what I want a phrase or color to sound like, I sometimes think of the flavor of a character.”
Not every soloist manages to fuse an informed, humanistic philosophy with their performances, but Simone Porter’s wisdom and musicality are fresh and apparent in her words and playing.
Simone Porter performs with pianist Rohan De Silva at 7:30 pm Tuesday at the Flagler Museum, 1 Whitehall Way, Palm Beach. Tickets are $75, and include a post-concert champagne and dessert reception. Call 561-655-2833, ext. 10, or visit www.flaglermuseum.us.