Festival is a fitting coda for Helps

The late Robert Helps was a musical iconoclast. Now a competition and festival at USF may burnish an underappreciated talent.

Published February 12, 2006

It has been a while since I listened to music by Robert Helps, the composer and pianist who died in 2001. But with a competition for emerging composers and a festival devoted to his legacy this week at the University of South Florida, where he taught, I was renewing my acquaintance with Bob through some CDs of his work the other day, when I came across a movement in his Piano Trio No. 2 marked "Toccata Frustrata," which I take to mean "Frustrated Toccata."

I had to laugh out loud - I was listening while driving - at how apt the title was for this witty little movement, just more than two minutes of skittering, repetitive piano figures, picked up and embellished by the strings in astringent upper register, stopping and starting a couple of times, as if thinking about just calling the whole thing off, then rushing headlong into a torrid finale.

Virtuosity with a sense of humor - it was vintage Bob, whose phone calls, prefaced with a gravel-voiced "Helps here, " always brightened my day. I remember talking to him right after Philip Glass' opera, The Voyage, was premiered in a live radio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in 1992, and asking what he thought. "Ugh, too much ostinato, " Bob said, pithily summing up the overriding effect of the work's musical language, which seemed to make the same point over and over and over again without really getting anywhere.

Bob was that rare musical artist, accomplished as both a composer and performer (he was a great pianist), as well as an inspiring teacher, not to mention his writing of marvelously readable program notes. This multiplicity of gifts may have kept him from being truly appreciated during his life, though he did gather plenty of honors, had quite a few recordings of his music made and received his share of critical attention.

This week's composition competition and festival in Bob's name at USF is a worthy and useful memorial to his life, work and place in modern American music, funded in part by his own trust. Among the highlights will be the premiere of the first winner of the Robert Helps Prize for composers younger than 35 (with an award of $10,000), Cheryl Frances-Hoad's My Fleeting Angel for piano, violin and cello. Four faculty musicians - Svetozar Ivanov, piano; Scott Kluksdahl, cello; Naomi Niskala, piano; and Carolyn Stuart, violin - will play the Frances-Hoad piece along with a selection of Helps' music, plus works by two of his seminal influences, Roger Sessions and John Ireland, Tuesday night at USF in Tampa, then repeat the program in New York on Saturday. Wednesday at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg, William Wiedrich, a friend and faculty colleague of Bob's, will conduct the USF Symphony Orchestra in his late-in-life Second Symphony, which was premiered by the Florida Orchestra. There will be a concert of new works by Paul Reller, Chihchun Lee and Michael Timpson Thursday night at USF.

The festival will also include the kind of musical shop talk that Bob enjoyed. Monday, composer Wes York gives a lecture on Morton Feldman, a Helps contemporary who composed in a very different style. Wednesday, I will moderate a panel on "Helps the Genius, Helps the Iconoclast: Contemplating an American Legacy." Friday, flutist-composer Janice Misurell-Mitchell will give a lecture, "Pushing the Envelope: Extended Techniques Virtuosity." Also on Friday, John Stephan, who recorded many Helps performances, will host a listening session at the Springs Theatre in Tampa.

Over the years, I accumulated a fat file on Helps, full of press clippings, program notes, news releases, whatever. In going through the file the other day, I came across a brilliant review by Sarah Cahill of a recital Helps gave in Berkeley, Calif., in 1995. Cahill, a fine pianist herself, captured the charismatic allure that Bob had in a performance of works by two of his favorites, the virtually forgotten early 20th century British composers Arnold Bax and Ireland.

"Perhaps," Cahill wrote in the East Bay Express, "what we recognize and cling to in Robert Helps is his apparent link to a lost era of great pianists like Rachmaninoff and Josef Hoffman and Myra Hess, whose warmth and suppleness Helps seems to recreate. We yearn for freshness in piano playing, yet vilify pianists whose novelty lacks substance. Emotional expressiveness, which most pianists avoid, comes naturally for Helps. He explores a phrase with remarkable leisure, liberating time into an elastic yet inexorable medium. It may also be that because he is a composer (and one whose style has ranged from romantic sweetness to atonal severity), he understands that Ireland and Bax shouldn't have to conform to our expectations. In the long run, we might not be convinced these are first-rate composers, and we might not go out of our way to hear them again. Unless Robert Helps is playing them, and then we will."





9 p.m., "Recollections: An In-depth Conversation with Robert Helps and Mary Diana," rebroadcast of a 1999 interview; WUSF-FM 89.7.


2 p.m., "Hidden Forms and Broken Symmetries in Morton Feldman's For John Cage," lecture by Wes York; USF School of Music, Tampa, FAH 133. Free.

6 p.m., "The Robert Helps Papers," opening of archival exhibi; USF Theatre 1 foyer, Tampa. Free.


Noon, "The Fleeting Angel of Inspiration: The Quest to Enhance the Intuitive with Compositional Techniques," lecture by Cheryl Frances-Hoad; USF Music Recital Hall, Tampa. Free.

8 p.m., Concert: Helps, Ireland, Sessions, Frances-Hoad; USF Music Recital Hall. Free.


Noon, "Helps the Genius, Helps the Iconoclast: Contemplating an American Legacy," panel discussion, USF Theatre 1. Free.

7:30 p.m., Concert: Helps, Finzi, Ireland, Faure, Mahler; USF Symphony Orchestra, Palladium Theater, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-3590, ext. 1. $6.


Noon, Master Class, Cheryl Frances-Hoad; USF School of Music, FAH 132. Free.

8 p.m., Concert: Reller, Chihchun, Timpson; USF Music Recital Hall. $4, $8.


Noon, "Pushing the Envelope: Extended Techniques Virtuosity," lecture by Janice Misurell-Mitchell; USF School of Music, FAH 134. Free.

8 p.m., "In Retrospect: An Archival Listening Tour of the Florida Performances of Robert Helps"; Springs Theatre, 8029 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 915-0074. $4, $8.


8 p.m., Concert: "A New York Recapitulation and Coda," works of Helps, Sessions, Frances-Hoad; Merkin Concert Hall, 129 W 67th Street, New York; (212) 501-3330. $10, $20.

Information: (813) 974-2323; helpsprize.arts.usf.edu