Concert Review: Venezuelan Pianist Gabriela Montero at the Harris Theater

Venezuelan Pianist Gabriela Montero; Photo Credit: Colin Bell

Thanks to the Harris Theatre for providing us with tickets.

Like many people in the US, the first time I heard of Gabriela Montero was during President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Her recent success is due in large part to her mimed ensemble performance with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and violinist Itzhak Perlman. Prior to this career elevating moment, it is surprising the Venezuelan pianist didn’t garner more accolades.

On Friday evening, Montero made her Chicago debut at the Harris Theater.  It is uncharacteristic for classical musicians to interact with the audience. But this is how Montero is connecting with her audience and changing the “stuffiness” of the classical music concert.  When was the last time you heard other prominent performers take musical requests and improvise on them?  And that is precisely what she did.

Before the improvisational portion of the program in the second half, Montero began the evening performing two Chopin Ballads, No. 1 in G minor and No. 4 in F minor.  With fluidity and gracefulness, she eased her way through each ballad instantly capturing the audience’s attention.

In support of her 2010 album release, Solatino , the remainder of the program was devoted to music on the album, which is comprised of Latin American piano music. Montero charmed the audience with music by Ernesto Lecuona, Ernesto Nazareth, Alberto Ginastera, and Moises Moleiro.

Of Lecuona’s compositions, “Malagueña” is the better known and was performed with nuanced rhythm and used the range of colors.  But the beautiful “Cordoba” captured my ears more than flirtatious “La Compersita” and the guitaristic “Gitanerias”.

The two short works by Ernesto Nazareth, “Odeon” and “Brejeiro”, added nice mixture to the folkloric set before ending the set and first half with the “Joropo” by Moleiro.

Montero opened the second half with Ginastera’s Piano Sonata no.1, the beefiest work of the evening. Ginastera’s sonata, written during his neo-expressionism period, masterfully blends Latin flavors into a more traditional European framework. This particular sonata is one my personal favorites, but it was nice hear it performed by a master Latin music.  Montero’s interpretation was refreshing.  She balanced fury with nuance and eloquence with passion.  The slow third movement, “Adagio”, is usually where performers have a tendency to losing the audience, but Montero’s masterful phrasing kept listeners hanging on before ending before going into the rhythmically, rapid final movement.

Then it was time for the audience to pitch in.  In true form, Chicago kindly requested an improvisation on the Chicago Bears fight song. In addition to taking requests, Montero asks the audience to sing the melody.  In the rather sad, yet entertaining moment, the audience couldn’t get past the first segment of “Bear down, Chicago Bears”. Montero used this short fragment to shape a Bachian fantasia, a rather impressive showing of how in control she is of the musical language that oozes from her fingers.

Montero also improvised to the popular Venezuelan song by Simon Diaz, if I got the name correctly, suggested by her fellow flag-waving Venezuelans in attendance. (Yes, there were really flags in the audience.)  I didn’t catch the name of the song though.

This was a followed about by a romanticized to Latinized rendition of Billy Joel’s Piano Man. It was astonishing how smoothly she managed to transition styles from a Brahmsian mood to a Latin style improv while performing “in the moment.”

She then moved into an interesting iteration of “Yesterday” by the Beatles.  As with the other improvs, only a segment was selected, but she found subtle ways to mask the melody underneath a rich layer of musical spontaneity.

The evening came to a close with a ragtime improvisation of “All That Jazz”.  As with all improvisation, some worked better than others.  However, with this art form resting primarily with jazz musicians, it was refreshing to hear her keep the art form alive on the classical side.

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