Stephen Porter: A late show for piano



You won’t find the Tchaikovsky concerto in pianist Stephen Porter’s repertoire. You also won’t find concertos by Beethoven, Chopin or Brahms.

Yet he has an extensive American and European career that will bring him to the Berkshires for a concert Saturday night.

"I just don’t have any real desire to play concertos," Porter says. "I would play Mozart concertos for sure, but I really am not interested in competing in the concerto field, trying to get appearances playing with orchestras, trying to play faster and louder than all the other people who are out there trying to play Tchaikovsky in front of an orchestra."

He will play chamber music, but his main interest is the recital: The "intimate connection with the audience that you can have when you play a solo piano program."

Which partly explains the recital he’ll play Saturday night at 8 at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. The program, titled "Late Style," consists of late works by Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and Schubert, culminating in Schubert’s visionary Sonata in B flat, completed just a few weeks before the composer’s death.

Porter grew up in Amherst and now lives in Boston. He has taught at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute but this program in the early college’s South Berkshire Concerts series will be his Berkshire concert debut. His unconventional career has included such projects as "Re-imagining Debussy," a set of 15 short pieces composed for him, each by a different composer. They were written, he says, in the spirit -- though not necessarily the style -- of the French composer.

The idea came to him as a result of an immersion of Debussy during a residency at an international arts center in Paris in the summer of 2012. The occasion was the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth.

You can look at musicians’ biographies and find long lists of places where they have played, premieres they have given and reviews they have garnered. If places like Carnegie Hall don’t loom large in Porter’s file, he has performed many times, for example, at the Frederick Collection, a museum of vintage pianos dating from the 1790s to 1920s. It is located in Ashburnham, a town near the New Hampshire border.

At the collection, he has played the big Schubert sonata in B flat -- the one he’ll finish with here -- on an 1828 Graf piano from Vienna. It is exactly the kind of piano Schubert would have known when composing the work.

The Graf, Porter said in a telephone interview, doesn’t have the volume of a modern grand, but it does have an "incredible transparency" that even a fine modern instrument, like the Steinway at Simon’s Rock, can only suggest.

He’s not "dogmatic" about old instruments, he said, "but it’s an absolute fact that you hear things on those instruments that you simply don’t hear on a modern piano. And it gives you insights on how they [the composers] wrote, what they were intending. And then you can apply that to performances on a modern instrument."

The program here, which Porter has been refining since last fall, includes Beethoven’s six Bagatelles, Opus 126, his last work for piano. The Chopin is the two Nocturnes of Opus 62, which Porter describes as "amazing, proto-impressionist works." That connects them to three pieces, including two etudes, by the impressionist Debussy, though Porter points out that these late works are more dissonant than the earlier, more familiar Debussy.

The late Beethoven and Schubert works, in particular, share a "philosophical" sense of calm beneath their outer qualities, which can range from playfulness in Beethoven to lyricism in Schubert, the pianist says.

"Even though these four composers are so different on the surface --- we all know Beethoven and Debussy couldn’t be more dissimilar -- you’ll hear things between the pieces of these composers written in their late style that actually sound quite similar, and I find that to be fascinating."

Elaborating on the idea in a written note, he adds: "Across the late styles of very different composers, some features stand out: an interest in advanced harmonies and counterpoint, an extraordinary calm and spaciousness, and a desire to capture the freedom of improvisation."

Porter graduated from Oberlin College and the New England Conservatory. He has been on the piano faculties of Webster University and Phillips Andover Academy, in addition to B.U.’s Tanglewood institute for high school-aged students. His other current programs are all-Beethoven and all-Debussy.

Porter looks forward to the return the Western Massachusetts. He recalls, as a boy in the 1970s, climbing in the trees at the back of the main lawn at Tanglewood.

As for the Tchaikovsky concerto, you can hear that most summers in the Tanglewood Shed.


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