Gabriela Montero in Concert
by Tom Manoff
Classical music is in trouble. Despite notable successes of certain events, artists and ensembles around the world, its vibrant place in society has withered. No greater symptom of this decline is the lack of younger generations at concerts. There are no easy solutions. But when what’s not working is clear, it’s time to stop playing it safe. Programming is the key. And solo and chamber music concerts, because of relatively low cost and logistics, are the easiest kind of programming to stir things up.
Gabriela Montero, the Venezuelan-born pianist who appeared at The Jaqua Concert Hall in Eugene, Or., is on my list of “artists for the future” – performers who can help classical music attract and keep new audiences. To my delight, there were some children in the front rows at this concert.
Montero has several fine recordings, good sellers for classical releases. Part of her success is that she improvises on some of these recordings and also on half of her solo recitals. Although improvisation is common practice for Baroque music, and was so for soloists in the past, the average audience member finds something novel when Montero asks for a theme from the crowd and makes a piece from it. Perhaps it’s the informality of the interaction that makes this interesting for audiences. I was most impressed by the Montero’s straight performances on the first half of the program.
The pianist is a powerful presence. At the opening of Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, the piano seemed something puny, bits of wood and ivory in danger of breaking apart from her energy. Montero seemed to be sizing up the instrument and the hall, testing the limits of particular notes, figuring out what the instrument would offer her at the moment.
Schumann’s work is cast in 22 short pieces, each containing a small bit of two motives. In the opening movements I was unmoved, this famous music sounding a bit square. Montero, it seemed, was making no effort to massage the sound. But by the fifth piece the inner voices in the texture started singing. The piano’s sound palette took on colors. Sections began unfolding with dramatic contrasts and thematic links. The interpretation took on momentum, its tensions between unfettered lyricism and structural artifice resolved only by the breathtaking silence at the end.
When she finally engages with the work, Montero is an astonishing performer, showing a seamless unity of what is physical and musical. She has a gift shared with only the greatest keyboard artists. She doesn’t play the piano, she becomes it.
Alberto Ginastera was one of the 20th century’s best composers, and his Sonata for Piano, No. 1 is a masterpiece. Performances of this work often suffer in two ways. Pianists let its considerable technical difficulty dominate the interpretation, and pound away at it, missing its complex interplay of musical elements. The other misstep is treating its idiom as somehow exotic, instead of grasping the organic, pancultural interplay of European and Latin American sensibilities. Either misunderstanding can misshape the work.
Montero understands the work at every level. And in her hands, all the composer’s genius is at play. I cannot imagine a better performance. Ravishing is an understatement.
After intermission, Montero improvised on themes suggested by the audience. She gave special attention to the kids in the front rows. The pianist had seemed bigger than life in the first part of the evening. Yet in interactions with the audience in the second half of the program, she revealed a sensitive and, at times, quite a vulnerable personality.
Imagine the impact on those kids in this experience of Montero as an artist and a person. The combination of the straight on performance and this personal interaction seems an important aspect for bringing young people for classical music in the future. I don’t happen to like it. But I am not the issue here, especially looking ahead.
In retrospect, I thought again about the bland opening of the Schumann. I cannot know the performer’s heart. But I wondered if she was waiting for the music to begin speaking to her heart on this particular night. Gabriela Montero’s musical powers exist within a highly sensitive, almost raw emotional personality. Every performance may be a completely unknown journey for her.
The lush and intimate acoustics of Eugene’s Jaqua Hall offered a perfect setting for what was, in the deepest sense, a journey of the spirit.