From the Musical Vault Dept.: One of the most engaging artists to have emerged from the long-running Martha Argerich-hosted summer fesitvals is Gabriela Montero. She made her Saratoga Performing Arts Center debut in 2011 with a pair of concerts that – well, you can read my contemporaneous thoughts below, following an interview piece that sought to sell the events to what remains, in New York’s Capital Region, at least, a largely impassive audience.
IMPROVISATION IS A BACKBONE OF THE ARTS. Making it up as you go along is a stalwart of theater and jazz, and it had a huge place in classical music a couple of hundred years ago, when improvising performers worked their magic in well-known forms, Beethoven and Mozart among them.
The Venezuela-born pianist will make two appearances at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center during the coming week. First is a recital (8 PM Tues., Aug 9) as part of the Chamber Music Festival, then she returns two nights later to play Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero.
Speaking from her home near Boston, the pianist explained that her Tuesday appearance, like her other recitals, will be in two parts. “The first half tends to be traditional repertory, while the second half is completely improvised.” And, as with theatrical improv, her creations are truly spontaneous. “I ask a member of the audience to sing theme I can use, which they then can follow in the improvisation. It’s a wonderful way to create a sense of access. Usually, I’m transforming themes that are well-loved, so it becomes very interactive and unpredictable. And very collaborative.”Montero made her concert debut when she was five; three years later, she played a Haydn concerto with the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. During a fast-burgeoning career, she has gone on to perform with the world’s major orchestras and conductors, and is a frequent chamber-music collaborator, especially at Martha Argerich’s annual Lugano Festival in Switzerland.
In fact, it was Argerich who suggested that Montero include improvisation in her programs. Montero’s describes the revered pianist’s encouragement as life-changing, but characteristic of Argerich: “She’s an incredible artist, an incredible woman, and an incredible friend. I was just working with her again in Switzerland and it was wonderful.”
A number of Montero’s improvisations have been recorded, particularly on her album “Baroque” and the Latin-themed “Solatino.” But she notes that her musical language has changed even since those discs were made. “It’s become more complex but at the same time I feel very comfortable – there’s a sense of incredible joy that the audience demonstrates.”
What makes it more impressive is that Montero never pursued formal study of harmony or other elements of music theory. “What I do comes from non-intellectual sources. There’s a logic and intelligence behind it, but it’s not like a ‘two plus two equals four’ kind of formula. I’m afraid that if I studied it, it would result in making too many intellectual connections – I’d start to think too much about it. And if you do think in an improvisation, you have the danger of repeating yourself – you’ll establish too many patterns and safe landing places. To me, it’s a white canvas that I paint differently every time.”
Also on the Tuesday program are works by Martinu and Dvořák. Thursday’s concert is an all-Russian affair with the Rachmaninoff in the first half. About that composer, Montero says, “I feel very close to his works. I can’t think of anything of his that I don’t love on a visceral level. In fact, I only play works by composers whom I feel that way about. It’s more honest that way.” Should she be called upon for an encore after the piece, she’ll offer another taste of her improvisational prowess, again building a spontaneous work on an audience-suggested theme.
The program will conclude with Prokofiev’s spectacular Symphony No. 5.
– Metroland Magazine, 4 August 2011
PAIRING MUSIC BY MARTINŮ AND DVOŘÁK is a safe bet. Dvořák’s unashamed, lyrical folkishness is echoed in the sometimes more austere Martinů style – although in the case of the two works juxtaposed at the beginning of one of last week’s Saratoga Chamber Music Festival concerts, there wasn’t a hint of austerity. And what the two Czech composers did with their native musical fabric was echoed in pianist Gabriela Montero’s second-half solo performance of seven improvised pieces.
Violinist Noah Geller and violist Che-Hung Chen are Philadelphia Orchestra members who brought soloist-level virtuosity to Martinů’s Three Madrigals. The first movement offered an amiable, busy, lyrical theme sung against such typical string accompaniments as double-stops and arpeggios. In the second, an Andante, mutes and trills and pizzicato chords gave the colors when the duo wasn’t joining in Everly Brothers-style close harmony. The cheerful finale used light syncopations and a Bach-like arpeggio figuration.
You can count on Dvořák for brilliant piano writing that verges on the sentimental but never gets mawkish. In his Piano Quartet No. 2, Montero mined that brilliance with a faultless technique. The four-movement work is traditionally structured, its opening Allegro con fuoco characterized by a two-note motif and some soaring solo violin. Cello is featured plaintively in the ensuing Lento, showing off Ohad Bar-David’s affecting voice, while the third movement begins as a bubbly waltz in which everybody dances.
The finale of the piece let everybody cut loose in a frothy dance with many virtuoso moments, a feeling of Bohemian bonhomie infecting the movement. Which made a nice segue for what the surprising second-half.
Montero, alone, asked the audience for “well-loved themes,” noting that singing said theme was part of the deal. After each suggestion, she would embark on the improvisation. “Over the Rainbow” was shouted out, and thus she began.
I’m familiar with recordings she has made in which she makes up a piece as she goes along, and they sound so finished that it’s hard to believe that they’re born of spontaneity. Watching her embark on this task made it all make sense.
She noodled with the well-known melody, adding a harmony to those first eight bars, noodling some more, quietly, contemplatively. Then the improvisation began, a wash of melodic richness that quickly settled into a Baroque-style piece in which the octave leap of the song’s first two notes bounced out frequently. Even the police-siren whine of the song’s bridge made a furtive appearance in the five-minute piece.
A staccato theme from “Rhapsody in Blue,” inspired another five-minute improvisation, touching a flavor of Janáček by way of Rachmaninoff. But the next requester, asking for Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” wasn’t let off the hook. “You have to sing it for me,” the pianist insisted, and such is her charm that the bashful suggestor did.
An amazing exhibition followed: Gottschalkian bombast followed by Fats Waller stride. Montero explained in an interview that she approaches each piece unprepared, the choices she makes entirely in the moment. Thus the pacing of the pieces is a matter of instinct. It made programmatic sense that the next number should be a contrast, so how appropriate to get a request for “Amazing Grace.”
“Sing it for me,” said Montero. At first one voice, then more, until most of the audience had joined in to sing a complete chorus of the song to the pianist’s gentle accompaniment. It was as magical a moment as I’ve met in a concert hall. Although Montero’s improvisational voice is sui generis, there are trails of influence to be found, and here I heard Ravel and even Chaminade.
“La vie en rose” was unexpectedly Lisztian, with a tango rhythm emerging, while “Folsom Prison Blues” – a theme that required a few audience members to support the original wise guy who couldn’t sing the thing – was Gershwin-esque.
“Take Me out to the Ball Game,” the Albert Von Tilzer chestnut, proved to be a nice coincidence as a final request. It shares with “Over the Rainbow” a leap of an octave between its first two notes, and gave a sense of full-circle as Montero teased it through a Handelian opening into what unfolded like a miniature, multi-movement work for a very satisfying concert finish.
Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra
Spa Little Theatre, Aug. 9
– Metroland Magazine, 18 August 2011
IT MAKES SENSE, if you’ve been playing Rachmaninoff for a half an hour, that a spirit of Rachmaninoff would inform anything you make up thereafter, and pianist Gabriela Montero’s encore after performing that composer’s mighty Concerto No. 2 was an improvisation on a theme suggested by an orchestra member. Violinist Noah Geller played the opening of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and Montero worked it into something that absolutely suited the plaintive theme even as it worked it into a frenzy of Rachmaninoff-ian melodic passion and octave thunders.
After all, how do you top the thunder of the concerto’s finale? Montero made her SPAC debut – and Philadelphia Orchestra debut – playing the piece last Thursday, and it was as big-boned and impassioned as you could want.
Working with conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, Montero began with deliberate pacing, quickly swinging into the virtuoso abandon the piece demands. It’s a big, demonstrative piece with themes that have threatened to become over-familiar over the years, but a performance as well-crafted as this reminds us that the original context needs no apology. In the second movement, there’s a long song-without-words passage, its theme asking gentle questions, and the lyrical side of Montero’s technique was put nicely into play. The martial opening of the fast final movement began with a piano flourish that charged into what seemed (appropriately) like a horserace, as soloist and orchestra surged together to the finish line, bringing the audience to its feet.
When the orchestra played Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in this theater a few years back with Charles Dutoit conducting, it was a performance of great architectural majesty, well suited to the complex piece. Guerrero found another, equally effective approach, emphasizing the many stories told along the way. Passages of humor, of tenderness, of sardonic excitement all got their places in the sun, and it again added up to a vibrant and wonderful whole.
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Gabriela Montero, pianist
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 11
– Metroland Magazine, 18 August 2011