Monday, 24 April 2017

Gabriela Montero Living with Music

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is a whiz at the ivories
Today I had the opportunity to interview an amazing pianist who is classically trained, but can also improvise, much like a jazz musician -- on the spot.

Gabriela Montero is a Venezuelan pianist who will be performing tomorrow night at City Hall Concert Hall, playing Schubert and Schumann in the first half, and then after the intermission, she will take suggestions from the audience of what to play -- as long as they hum it to her.

She explained that improvisation was something classical musicians did in the 16th and 17th centuries, when composers would write "cadenza", and expect the musician to add their own flourish.

But later on, musicians didn't know what to play, and eventually it was written out, which is why people like me have always thought that classical music was about playing the piece exactly as the composer had intended, down to every last note.

Here she is riffing off of Bach's Goldberg Variations:


As someone who learned classical music on the piano, I could never even dream of improvising -- I thought it was something only those who were well versed in music could do, but Montero is in an league of her own.

When she was a baby she was already playing a toy piano in her crib. By the age of five she gave her first public performance and at eight performed her first piano concerto.

She likes to connect with the audience with improvisation
I brought up the description of being a prodigy, but she doesn't like the word, saying it separates her from others. She also frankly admitted she quit piano twice, one time not touching the piano for two-and-a-half years because she didn't want music to dictate her life.

"Just because I'm good at it doesn't mean I like it," she said. It took her years to reconcile with her talent and also the fact that she was a single mother meant that she had to use her skills as a musician to support her family.

Now she seems very happy to be making music on her own terms, and using it has a platform to speak out about her home country that is falling apart due to the corrupt government, with people starving from not being able to get access to food.

In 2011 she wrote Ex Patria as an emotional musical picture of what is going on in Venezuela, and while she has performed it 10 times, including a recording, she hopes she doesn't have to play it again.

The following year Amnesty International made her an honorary consul, where she uses the position to talk about Venezuela, and she is now basically in self-imposed exile; if she were to return, she says she would be put in jail. She now lives in Barcelona with her husband and two daughters.

But back to the improvisation -- I hummed her Teresa Teng's famous song, The Moon Represents My Heart.



She played what I hummed perfectly on the piano, dabbled a bit with it and then began to play. And watching her riff off the phrase in various styles was amazing. We were just spellbound watching her play.

After she finished, she said that when she improvises, it has to be recorded because she cannot play it exactly the same again -- the music flows through her onto the keys and once it's over, that's it.

Montero seems at peace with her spellbinding talent, probably thanks to age and having tried to quit twice and then coming to terms with it, but also determined to use it the way she wants to.

She has a warm spirit and eager to share her music with everyone.

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