The first time violinist Simone Porter played professionally with the Seattle Symphony, she was 10 years old. Now, some 14 years later, she’s an international soloist, having performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and more.
Porter, a former Seattleite, returns for her fourth time to Benaroya Hall since that debut, for a concert on Oct. 8 — but under very different, pandemic-related circumstances. She’ll be playing Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto accompanied by a reduced, masked and socially distanced orchestra under the baton of South Korean conductor Shiyeon Sung, and with no audience. The concert will be presented via ticketed performances online at live.seattlesymphony.org.
As much as she is looking forward to the engagement, Porter wonders how the absence of a crowd will impact the way she does her job.
“I’m asking myself if I’m going to get more or less nervous than usual because I can’t feed off an audience’s energy,” she says from her home in Los Angeles. “A cornerstone of live performance is sharing a space. With livestreaming, you enter the intimate spaces viewers have concocted for themselves. I don’t know what that will feel like. But I’m going to sink into my onstage interactions with the orchestra. I haven’t been able to do that for a while, so I think that will be captivating.”
Apart from an outdoor concert in Orlando preceding her Seattle performance, Porter’s professional schedule for the season has been cratered by COVID restrictions. The contrast between the typical jet-set norms of a traveling soloist and the earthbound fortunes of a musician’s unemployment are startling.
“I’m saving, scraping, getting by,” she says. “I filed for unemployment and was helped out by the CARES Act, which has ended.”
Born in Salt Lake City, Porter moved to Seattle at age 5. Her parents are both professors of international studies at the University of Washington. She began playing violin at age 3, and received instruction in Seattle from renowned violin pedagogist Margaret Pressley.
“Technique was emphasized when I was young,” Porter says. “But I care about technique insofar as it allows me to expand my color palette, create what’s in my mind and not just replicate what’s strictly on the page.”
Porter made her international debut at age 13, and flew back and forth between Seattle and L.A., accompanied by her mother, to attend music classes at the Colburn School. At 15, she moved to Southern California to attend Colburn full time.
“In a way, I didn’t realize my career was building,” says Porter. “It unfolded with a lot of support and me working as hard as I could. I didn’t do any competing. I love soloing, but it wasn’t the thing I felt compelled to do. I just started doing it more and more, and then I realized how much I absolutely adored it. It was a slow build.”
Her Oct. 8 concert with Seattle Symphony has her taking on a work with fraught origins. The Barber Violin Concerto premiered in 1941 in a pair of performances by violinist Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Barber had been commissioned to write a new work for Iso Briselli, his fellow 1934 graduate from the Curtis School of Music. Delays in completing the composition were exacerbated by fierce criticism of the score by Briselli’s violin coach, and by Briselli himself, who wanted a different finale. Barber refused. In the end, Briselli relinquished his interest.
“There was a bit of pettiness,” Porter says. “I know a lot of violinists who are not fans of the third movement. They don’t see it as musically cohesive with the romanticism of the first two. But I’ve always liked that. Compositions are a living, evolving part of history. The Barber is an immersive experience. An ambrosial, overwhelming sound world.”