After hearing Gabriela Montero Monday afternoon in Sanders Theater, I went home, and before my mystical feelings passed, sat down to play better piano than I had any right to expect. Montero had played and advocated as guest of Lespau, a Harvard affiliate celebrating 50 years of connecting Latin America and the Caribbean with opportunities for quality higher education.
Montero’s the total package. She reveals a monster-scary technique, but that’s not what you take away. She’s about the music, being in the moment, with an unreal level of concentration (Barenboim-like, but with more piano coloring). She generates more warmth from her right little finger than a nuclear reactor, along with gorgeous sound, and extended musical arcs of lyric melody. That’s what you take away.
She is known as much for her improvising as for her improvisatory takes on standard repertoire. In the latter halves of many of her recitals she fills in the blanks after asking the audience to supply a theme—it must be sung, not simply named—then she goes to town. Remarkable, the way she can incorporate so many classical musical styles and periods into a single creation on a theme, totally on the fly. Jazzy, too. Leading into this program, I was most excited about the improvisations promised. And she delivered, on all two of them.
Just Two? I forgave her on the spot (of course), because I couldn’t imagine a better, or more satisfying, performance of the Schubert or Schumann that the first part of her program comprised. But more on that little finger.
Trust me, eyes and ears were trained on that finger, mostly during the four Schubert Impromptus, Op. 90, D. 899, where said finger got a considerable share of the music’s focus, particularly in the 3rd Impromptu.
She must have started learning these pieces at age six. Such old friends they seemed. Not that they sounded old, like early 19th century German period pieces, which would have been just fine. They were fresh, universal sounding.
Though I usually find these impromptus in need of whittling down, with so much repetition of musical ideas, Montero made these not-so-small pieces hum (vibrate), and dance, with grace, mass, and (importantly) structure. Again, I’m reminded of Barenboim, relentless in the loud, aggressive sections Beethoven’s last movement of the Waldstein, while so quiet throughout the initial theme and its returns, but as a result, bringing structure to the work, making us hear the movement (and work) as a whole. Montero brought scale to the set of four with blood-pulsing life.
She is a master of subdivision on a minute (emphasis on second syllable) scale, and her Impromptus unfolded rhythmically from so many different temporal gears that it gave her, almost paradoxically, the power to bend time, if she so wished. And so wish she did, but not initially. That would come with time, because she indulged in only the barest rhythmic nuance in the opener. This was not Brendel’s Schubert. It was classically structured all the same, but with more: more power, more sectional contrast, more drama, more quiet, more breadth, more noble sorrow, and more singing. Such singing! And when that ever-slight nuance came, she made the works her own. If you wished, you could hear increments of four, sixteen, and 32 between the larger musical pulse. You could almost see humming birds drawn to and hovering above.
There’s a lot of reverb in Sanders. My colleague found some of Montero’s playing to be just a little over-legato, but not over-pedaled. I hadn’t noticed. It was certainly never brittle. Triplets in the 2nd and 4th impromptu shimmered, with all the repetition serving to mesmerize rather than sound like repetition. Both impromptus danced, bounced lightly (with all that de-emphasis of the 3rd beat), and melodies (be it played with right little finger or left thumb) soared.
In the 3rd impromptu we marveled at her rubato. Montero could extract as much time between those right little finger melodic notes as she wanted, and it all worked because she was (as were we) so much in the moment as the piece pulsed. Before the close, double-forte drama had unfolded with the same gorgeous sound as her floating pianissimos.
Carnival had all the stop-start-accelerate-turn-get loud-get soft-spin-on-a-dime Sturm und Drang one could desire. It was much like Matsuev’s marvelous rendition at Sanders two years before, but perhaps imbued more warmth, and more ache. Big, tiny, and intimate at once.
Her virtuoso arsenal included joyous bursts of sound, whisper quiet octaves then huge washes of sound, left hand leaping over the keyboard (much fun to watch), orchestral playing but über-pianistic. Her piano pleaded and waltzed about with wit and wackiness—no shying away from those Schumann-ic schizophrenic shifts of character; extra pronounced they were—all leading to an exultant, joyous close.
After the Schumann, Montero announced she would be playing two improvisations. One on an audience-provided theme, the other on a theme she would introduce based on her homeland.
It took all of two moments for her to get her bearings with Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” She played the theme, then launched into a Mozart variation, then riffed into a dizzying array of styles, moods, and modes on the Dylan theme, adding and dispensing with her own creative supporting material along the way. It was a hoot! And an audience delight.
An ardent activist and spokesperson for her native Venezuela, Montero spoke briefly of her country’s descent into lawlessness, corruption, and violence. But, she said, she is absolutely convinced things will get better. Her improvisation, she said, would start from fear and despair, but would end with quiet triumph.
A dark and haunting theme emerged, quietly. It, too, descended into violence, before rising from tones of despair to sounds of hope. If there was some slight self-indulgence in this improvisation, it was entirely warranted. Montero has blood in her veins, marrow in her bones, and age in her soul. She played with passion and sinew while projecting great composure. I was the one to have had a fine meltdown.