Robert Helps, Reviews

Classic pianissimo

By John Fleming,* St. Petersburg Times, Feb. 14, 1996

When it comes to fame, revered composer and
respected teacher Robert Helps plays ever so softly.

Robert Helps is something like a prophet without honor in his own land. A pianist, composer and professor at the University of South Florida, Helps is revered by fans of contemporary classical music in the country's cultural capitals.

”When Bob gives a recital in Boston or New York, the musicians in the city will come out of the woodwork to hear him play,“ said Alan Feinberg, a pianist in New York who played some of Helps’ music a few years ago on a Grammy-nominated album, the American Romantic, which also featured works of two composers from an earlier era, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Amy Beach.

Helps is an interesting and important figure in 20th century music. As a performer, he has been a leading interpreter of piano music by Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt and other contemporary composers. At the keyboard, he has a unique barrelhouse style ‑ his technique appears to originate more in his upper arms than in his fingers - that brings knotty, difficult music to life.

As a composer, Helps has created a substantial body of high-quality work in almost every musical genre, but especially in the piano literature.

However, in the bay area and the rest of Florida, Helps is not well known outside of music circles, though he has taught at USF for 20 years. Such is the inevitable fate, it seems, of many practitioners of modem music.

Three years ago, Helps gave a solo piano recital as part of the Subtropics contemporary music festival in Miami.

The program included his own Quartet for Piano, the Second Sonata by Sessions - Helps’ one-time composition teacher - plus a wide range of other works. He gave a brilliant, hugely enjoyable performance that was heard by two newspaper music critics and a half-dozen other people, a not untypical turnout for a concert of new music.

Nor has Helps’ music ever been performed by the Florida Orchestra, despite the admiration and affection many of the orchestra’s players have for him.

The orchestra plays little contemporary music. Helps has written several pieces that could work on an orchestra program, including Symphony No. 1 (his only symphony) and Piano Concerto No. 2, which was commissioned and premiered by the highly regarded pianist Richard Goode.

At 67, Helps is philosophical about the vagaries of fashion in music. For many years, he lived in New York, and even there at the center of the contemporary music scene, concerts were sparsely attended. “Year after year, it seemed as if the same 75 people were at the concerts,” he said. “I take the same approach to popularity of lack of it as Sessions, who agreed with Gertrude Stein that if you write music – or, in her case, poetry – to please somebody, you will please nobody. If you write to please yourself, you will please yourself and at least some other people.”

With this year being the 100th anniversary of Session’ birth, Helps has piano recitals of the composer’s works scheduled in New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Detroit. Earlier this month in Boston, he played Sessions’ Third Sonata, a challenging piece of music that “was born difficult,” Helps said.

“I sword 10 years ago it was my last time with it,” he said. “But I’m very happy to get things together again. Physically, I felt as good as I ever did with it.”

In the late 1940’s and 1950’s, Helps was a pianist of daunting technical gifts, one who was closely associated with Babbitt, the darling of the intellectual avant garde whose piano works can seem not just difficult, but unplayable. Babbitt’s Partitions was dedicated to Helps, who premiered the work in 1960.

The performer and composer is also a respected teacher, an some of his piano students are taking part tonight in what has grown into a kind of tradition at USF, a concert of du-piano music by candlelight on Valentine’s Day. Helps has guided the students in selecting what they’ll play and presides over rehearsals, a benevolent and slightly eccentric sort of presence, with his long white hair and beard.

In the concert, Corey Holt and Eden Kahle will play a recent Helps work, Eventually the Carousel Begins. Last Friday, they rehearsed the piece in the school’s recital hall; with Helps listening and offering encouragement from a seat in the hall. The 10-minute piece has a dreamy quality that calls for delicate play by the two pianists.

“You did that just beautifully,” Helps said after they were finished.

Later, the two young women talked about what it was like to study with Helps. “He’s very laid back,” Holt said. “Here we are playing one of his pieces, and he really put us at ease.”

“You can learn more in one hour with him than six months with somebody else,” said Kahle. “He has the most amazing technical solutions to problems.”

So why is Helps not better known? Feinberg, who was a student of Helps at the Manhattan School of Music in the 1970’s, thinks it is because he is so self-effacing in an age of self-promotion.

“Bob’s kind of the real thing,” Feinberg said. “He’s a real musician. None of it’s posed. He’s the real thing. An artist.”

If you want to hear Helps play

Here are five of Robert Helps’ favorite compositions:

  • Piano Concerto No. 2, premiered by Richard Goode and the Oakland Symphony.
  • Shall We Dance for solo piano, to be premiered by Russell Sherman.
  • Quintet for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano.
  • Symphony No. 1, completed in 1955.
  • Nocturne for solo piano.

* John Fleming, a former president of the Music Critics Association of North America, covered for 22 years the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with The Tampa Bay Times (formally known as The St. Petersburg Times).