Simone Porter brings bracing artistry to Celebrity Series recital

February 10, 2022 at 12:29 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Simone Porter performed Wednesday night at Pickman Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Elisha Knight

Simone Porter’s Celebrity Series debut at Pickman Hall Wednesday night proved revelatory on two fronts. The violinist’s bracing accounts of mostly 21st-century works confirmed the good reasons for her quick rise to fame. And a world premiere by composer Reena Esmail proved a remarkable discovery.

Each has established a unique voice at a relatively young age. Porter continues to earn acclaim for her silver-toned virtuosity and probing interpretations. Esmail blends Western and Hindustani styles—drawing on her Indian heritage—with stunning originality.

Her Drishti, written for Porter, proved an ideal showcase for the young violinist’s artistry. Scored for solo violin, Drishti refers to a concept familiar to practitioners of yoga, where a gaze channels one’s focused energy. Throughout its ten-minute span, the score explores transformations in color—subtle glissandos and harmonics gradually take added weight in bluesy arpeggios. Yet there are spare moments where trills outline a single note. Drishti never feels gestural, and Porter revealed the work’s spiritual essence by conveying its inner power and meditative ease.

Other works for solo violin showcased similar sensitivity, albeit in a somewhat slight first half

“Sabina” from Andrew Norman’s The Companion Guide to Rome captures the impressions of a Roman cathedral at sunrise. Tone color is the singular element, and the music’s faint gestures never quite flower into an indelible melody. Working like a painter, Porter nevertheless shaped the rustling figures and whistle tones into a vivid sonic picture.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen verlernt plumbed greater emotional depths. The ten-minute work takes its inspiration from Schoenberg’s “Gebet an Pierrot,” the ninth song in Pierrot lunaire, where the narrator pleads for the clown to return her ability to laugh. Salonen’s music is a literal depiction of that effort, with yearning phrases building into a frenzy before calming suddenly in the closing bars. Porter reveled in its virtuosic display, her lines erupting in a climactic fury.

Porter was a subtle presence in Heinrich Biber’s Passacaglia in G minor, the final work from the Rosary Sonatas. The opening descending figure, played with a distant tone, provided the foundation for the double stops and rapid figures to follow. Through it all the violinist found a prayer resonance.

The second half of the program was dedicated to César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major.

The work is a marvel of cyclic unity and wide emotional contrasts, and Porter had an equal partner in pianist Hsin-I Huang. Their plush blend revealed the pathos in every movement. 

The first was characterized with radiant lyricism, led tastefully into the angsty Allegro. Porter and Huang softened their tone in all the right moments, finding both poignancy and sweeping grandeur. The Recitativo—Fantasia was just as heartfelt, and the duo’s sensitive approach made for a serene finale.

Porter and Huang rewarded the applause with a tender encore: Fritz Kreisler’s transcription of Dvořák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me.   

A stream of Simone Porter’s concert is available until February 15. The Celebrity Series will present the Imani Winds and Catalyst Quartet in music by Jesse Montgomery, Mongo Santamaria, Florence Price, and Roberto Sierra 8 p.m. March 5 at the First Church in Cambridge. 

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