Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Cleveland Institute of Music
January 23

A virtuoso performer who gladly takes requests.

It was a scene straight out of Currier & Ives: A dramatically lit stage with a radiant beauty seated at the Steinway. Behind her, a winter scene framed in a towering glass backwall, with snow swirling in the spotlights and then falling gently to rest on trees covered in a glistening white frosting.

The artist at the keyboard was no less captivating – Gabriela Montero, the Venezuelan piano prodigy who packs concert halls around the world with her fiery interpretations of the classical repertoire and improvisational performances. One could hardly ask for a more enchanting way to spend a January evening than seeing her in the intimate setting of Mixon Hall.

Montero, 43, gave her first public performance at the age of five. So her mastery of the classics, both technically and musically, comes as no surprise. What has made her a sought-after soloist is her style, a unique language and approach that puts a fresh gloss on whatever she plays. Well-known works are for her less finished pieces than musical palettes to be mixed, manipulated and rendered in new shadings and hues.

Montero has also fashioned a unusual career as a hybrid player who combines the best of the classical and jazz worlds. Improvisation was always a personal passion, but it was at the urging of the legendary Martha Argerich that she finally brought it to the stage, incorporating soaring flights of improv into her recitals. Her concerts now typically start with standard piano works and finish with long, unscripted solos based on melodies suggested by the audience.

Montero opened her CIM performance with Three Intermezzos (Op. 117) by Brahms, a staple in her recitals over the past year. Warm, lyrical and rhythmic, the piece was most interesting for its exacting sound. Many players can blaze through florid interpretations; Montero balances that with unexpected tempos, careful nuances and pianissimo moments that fade into the barest whisper. Her control of the music is absolute, an amazing accomplishment on the piano, a percussive instrument that offers none of the finesse possible on, say, a string instrument like the violin.

In Schumann’s Fantasy in C major Montero showed a lot of technical flash, with an uptempo first movement that matched the whirling spirals of snow behind her. The third movement started with what seemed like a barrelhouse rhythm, with vivid colors becoming muted for some tender, almost meditative passages before flaring back to life in what sounded like a final cascade of jazz chords. It was not what Schumann typically sounds like. But as a display of sheer skill coupled with bold, impassioned expression, it was breathtaking.

Montero came out for the second half of her performance with a microphone, and chatted a bit with the audience about why she loves improvisation – “a blank canvas is the ultimate freedom” – before asking for song suggestions. One caveat: The person proposing the tune had to be able to sing it. A whole section of the audience chimed in on a perfect starter, “Let it Snow.” Montero played the melody, musing on the possibilities, then launched into a barely recognizable romp through Baroque and classical treatments, finishing with a dazzling flourish.

Subsequent suggestions ranged from the opening notes of Parsifal to a popular tango to Clair de Lune. She handled them all in the same way, stating and then toying with the melody before diving into fluid, energetic variations on it. Though they were clearly spontaneous, her improvisations sounded more like finished pieces, with well-developed structures and motifs. And she showed command of a variety of genres, ranging across Latin, jazz and classical flavors and rhythms.

Montero says that she performs improv because she finds it the best way to connect with her audience. Coming from anyone else, that might sound disingenuous, an excuse for showing off skills that classical strictures do not allow. But her charming manner, openness in working with listeners and responding to their ideas, and her gift for invention made a strong mark at Mixon, where the audience was mostly fellow musicians. With them, as with fans around the world, she definitely struck a chord.

For more on Gabriela Montero:

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