Pianist Keith Porter-Snell at Old First Church in San Francisco

After more than twenty years away from the concert platform Keith Porter-Snell has reinvented himself and has become one of the most sought after exponents of left handed piano literature. Two years ago in the beautiful venue of the Old First Church in San Francisco Porter-Snell showed himself to be not only a supreme performer but a skilled arranger. He is also bringing new works to the concert platform either by way of commissions, and, in the case of  Sunday afternoon’s performance, giving brand new works their US premiers.

When diagnosed with focal dystonia shortly after winning the Joanna Hodges International Piano Competition in 1984, and no longer able to perform standard repertoire Porter-Snell decided to share his musical expertise in a different way,   devoting himself to teaching, and editing an array of repertoire books which have become a primary resource of teaching literature for teachers in many countries. In 2006 Porter-Snell returned to the stage embracing works written for the left hand. If you’ve never seen someone perform a piece for the left hand alone take a look at Youtube. Here you will find  Porter-Snell performing a transcription by Brahms of the Chaconne by J. S. Bach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tW57frqA8yA Even in live performances it’s hard to take in that someone is performing this work single handedly!

On Sunday afternoon, April 13, Porter-Snell, who divides his life between New Mexico and Bath, England, was performing his fourth concert in ten days, two of which  had featured Emil Miland, his long time colleague from their days as students together at the New England Conservatory. Together they were to give the US premier of Stephen Hough’s ‘Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano, Left Hand (Les Adieux)’. Written as one continuous movement the twenty-minute piece ranges in emotion from brooding melancholy to tempestuous outbursts. Throughout the work the two instruments are very much equal partners. Beginning unceremoniously with a tentative low cello pizzicato the piece seemed to evolve from the nothing, as if the cello was recreating sounds that previous performers had left hovering in the building, just waiting to be plucked from the air and harnessed into employment. Static passages with repeated piano chords slowly changing by just one note as the cello focused on small half steps recalled minimalist techniques evoking for me  slowly evolving clouds drifting above a flat colorless landscape. According to Stephen Hough’s notes, ‘The subtitle of the piece, “Les Adieux” is non-programmatic, but it both underlines the melancholy spirit of the piece as well as conjuring up ghosts of Beethoven and Dussek.’ Miland, a long time member of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra has collaborated with many world class Bay area performers including Frederica von Stade and Jake Heggie. Hough’s piece calls for introspection rather than virtuosity, subtlety rather than overt flamboyance and Miland and Porter-Snell captured this delicate emotional balance together beautifully.

The opening of the recital showcased the flamboyance in Leschetizky’s paraphrase from Donizetti’s opera ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’ In the late 1800’s such opera transcriptions were a very popular vehicle for pianists to demonstrate their masterful technique and Porter-Snell’s precision and command of the keyboard were very much to the fore. A Prelude by Scriabin and  a technically demanding Waltz-Poem by Godowsky preceded the Finale from Suite #3 by Schulhoff. This had all the quirkiness of a Shostakovich waltz with its changing meter but without its transparency.

The second half of the program was devoted to the first set of “Verbs” by Kathleen Ryan. Porter-Snell asked Ryan to compose a group of 24 Preludes for left hand and she produced two books of “Verbs” in her highly approachable melodic style. These twenty four miniature gems are at times whimsical with  playful syncopation, at other times Satie-esque as in ‘Fling’ where the melodic line imitates the action. ‘Accuse’ uses a rising line for questioning that becomes more intense with each phrase while ‘Weave’ overlaps and intertwines lines with a folk-like naiveté. Porter-Snell’s performance of both books of ‘Verbs’, which have become a well liked feature of his repertoire  can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Unyn2PGyS4E Porter-Snell returned to the stage to accept the well deserved acknowledgement of a highly  appreciative, but sadly sparse, audience. The encore, Spindler’s ‘Romance’, lightened to mood sending out a cheerful audience into the clear light of a  sunny Palm Sunday afternoon.

(Our reviewer, Heather Morris, studied piano with Keith Snell for 8 years. She and Kathleen Ryan were members of Piano Renaissance, a performance group based in the East Bay).


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