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Connecting with Pianist Gabriela Montero

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I recall one of my visits to Manhattan’s Upper West Side’s Tower Records store — now a thing of the past — listening to a version of the well-known "Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu" blasting over the shop’s speaker system, while customers were browsing through the somewhat disorganized piles of CDs. It was 2005, and Gabriela Montero had just released her first CD on EMI — a mix of a great easy-listening classical repertoire, Chopin and Liszt, Rachmaninov and Scriabin, and, in line with her South American heritage, de Falla and Ginestera. I loved it immediately.

Ahh, what a pleasant memory! It makes me realize how much I miss the experience of physically searching through the different stacks, recognizing cover illustrations and different artists’ portraits while listening to recordings the music store’s staff has chosen for its customers. There are hardly any music stores left in Manhattan where you can actually browse and check for new releases or special editions – a joy that just cannot be replaced.

gabriela monteroSo here I was, at Tower Records, listening to Gabriela Montero playing Chopin. I had never heard of her at the time, so here was an exciting new discovery – at least for me.

I do love Chopin (who doesn't?) and even though the "Fantaisie-Impromptu" is such a familiar piece that the more recent generation of recording artists is almost shying away from it, this was a new kind of expression. There was an abundance of freshness, like the piece had been getting a makeover. I was listening to a new take on Chopin – an entirely new interpretation – and I was truly impressed by its crispness and brilliance, and its full and perfect harmonic beauty. Yet the real surprise was the additional CD that accompanied the classical selections: Gabriela Montero improvising on classical themes, in an extraordinary, accomplished way.

By the time she released her next CD, Bach and Beyond, in 2006, an exclusively improvisational album for EMI Classic, there was no doubt in my mind that here was a talent so unique it would have to be noticed sooner or later, and in a big way. And so it happened. Today, only four years later, this ravishing young woman is a pianistic superstar.

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Gabriela Montero gave her first public performance at age five. Her concerto debut with the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra, conducted by Jose Antonio Abreu, was only three years later. It won her a Venezuelan government scholarship for study in the United States, and Gabriela moved with her family to Miami where she studied with her Miami teacher until she was 18.

Yet, after ten years of lessons, she didn’t really feel inspired anymore. "I did not see a valid reason for me to be a musician," she told me when I met her on a rainy December evening at the bar of the Charles Hotel in Boston, just briefly before she had to host a fundraiser for the Boston Philharmonic."I knew why everybody else wanted me to be one, but I have always gone through struggles with fitting music into my life. Through many phases in my life I tried to suppress it; I have quit twice, yet it somehow came back in an even bigger way."

For a short while Gabriela returned to Caracas searching for "real life and meaning" beyond the piano, and volunteered in hospitals. But the "music in her head" (she calls it "a 24-hour radio") did not let her escape her instrument. She applied for and received a scholarship to the London Royal Academy of Music. Her London teacher, Hamish Milne, helped to re-ignite her love for the piano, and in 1995, when she was 25, she won the bronze medal at the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, Poland with a performance that revealed her extraordinary physical and emotional connection to the piano and the music.

But then life took Gabriela to Montreal, where she raised her first daughter and, once again, made plans for a career away from music, this time in psychology. It took six more years, and a crossing of paths with Martha Argerich — possibly the most influential female keyboard musician — until Gabriela’s genius was finally set free. "It was her encouragement," Gabriela points out. "I had met her before, but never really talked to her personally. She was performing with Maestro Dutoit in Montreal and I had contacted her. She was delighted to meet me for a cup of coffee and also invited me to play for her after one of her rehearsals. It got late – around 1:30 AM – and I had already had a beer or two while waiting for her, when her manager finally called me in to her. After some Beethoven and Schumann I started improvising."

It was here, at Montreal’s Place des Arts, that this personal pianist-to-pianist and woman-to-woman connection finally transformed Gabriela’s performance career.

“I realized what an important role for my whole identity as an artist and my connection to music my improvisations have always played for me. Martha made me realize that, and her support meant everything to me.”

She says that for her teacher in Miami the music world was limited to competitions, and that winning was everything. "It had nothing to do with inspiration. She only allowed me to listen to recordings of Arrau, and while at least she did not harm me technically, she distanced me from the improvisations; she did not want to hear anything about that."

The tradition of improvisation is duly described in classic music literature, with many composers known to have been great improvisers. Yet, all that faded away from the world of classical music in the 20th century, to become almost exclusively limited to the world of jazz.

Thanks to Martha Argerich’s energetic support, which included spreading the word about Gabriela, and annual invitations to her Progetto Martha Argerich in Lugano, Switzerland, improvisation would become a very personal form of bringing the piano and the audience together for Gabriela. "About 95% percent of my improvisations are classical in style," she states. "It just happens. I put my hands on the piano and it’s almost like an ‘out of body’ experience. I am removed from the process and at the same time very much part of it on a physical level. I just watch it grow and give it the freedom to expand, without limiting it or directing it. It is a thing of the moment, a very liberating experience – the musical freedom of expanding without standing in its way, without blocking it."

According to her, some people are teaching how to improvise, but this is something she cannot conceive of. “I am all about intuition. It would be great for me to be able to watch someone else do classical improvisation. Until my 30s I was under the impression that every pianist does that [improvisation] privately at home. It was so natural to me, and I was so unaware of it being such an item. My family and close friends always knew this about me."

Gabriela has a very personal way of connecting to people. When I met her, she spoke about the "common trials and tribulations of being a mother" (I am a mother, also). She was just coming from her little daughter’s piano recital, and explained how she always felt the pressure of giving her daughters enough of her time.

Raising her two daughters as a single parent, and performing for a great deal of time each year, Gabriela fully acknowledges the invaluable support of her mother, who is always there for her when she is on tour.
Besides her work, her home country, Venezuela, beckons her to return about once a year. Although she has made her new home in Boston, she misses the zest for life she experiences in Venezuela, despite its politically and socially torn environment.

And then she is interested in holistic approaches to keeping mind and body healthy. At the piano, Gabriela endorses the Taubman approach, which she says is valid and useful "… for anyone who wants to understand a healthy and organic way of playing piano."

One of the places she mentions as having embraced her as an artist wholeheartedly right from the start is Germany. “Germany has been wonderful – improvising in public has been given a big space in my concerts, and it was the German audience who understood it, craved it, and applauded it. It was not just something odd – like in a circus performance. They could not get enough.”

Given that this charming and charismatic performer excels at using her very special gift of spontaneous creativity time and time again, it comes as no surprise to see audiences in awe of her abundance of talent and virtuosity – and not only in Germany.

Her CD, Baroque Improvisations, was released in June, 2007 by London’s Abbey Road Studios and features the unique mix of classical repertoire and improvisations that has become her trademark. In February, 2008 her follow-up EMI recording of improvisations, Baroque, was released to great critical acclaim, receiving five-star reviews from BBC Music Magazine and Classic FM. Gabriela’s Bach and Beyond was given the “Choc de la musique de l’année” award in 2006 from the French magazine Le Monde de la Musique. She rounded off this triumphant year with the Keyboard Instrumentalist of the Year at the ECHO Preis Award in Munich and in 2007, ECHO Preis awarded her the Klassik-ohne-Grenzen Award for Bach and Beyond. In 2009, her latest album Baroque was nominated for a Grammy award in two categories (Best Crossover and Best Producer). She has also been profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Gabriela also has a long-established duo partnership with French cellist Gautier Capucon. They performed throughout 2009 in Europe, and 2010 will feature a busy engagement schedule.

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About Ilona Oltuski

  • Sue

    Great article Ilona! Really interesting pianist. Congrats on this.

  • Ruth Drory

    Ilona, you bring this Interview in such excellent form, that the reader can follow
    the development of the performer, from her start until today. Hopefully Gabriela M. will give us many more performances.