Melinda Bargreen | 08 MAR 2021
When the recitalist is Gabriela Montero, you know it’s not going to be a “business as usual” piano recital. The Venezuelan-born pianist, who turns 51 this year, is famous for her creative programming and for the inventive flair she brings to her recitals. This one has an intriguing theme: music relating to childhood, spanning a couple of centuries and three genres. Montero combined the usual (Schumann’s beloved Kinderszenen, or Scenes from Childhood, Op. 15) with the decidedly unusual (selections from Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs) and her own five-movement composition, Scenes from Childhood, followed by a free-form finale enticingly entitled “Improvisations.”
The recital, filmed and recorded at Montero’s home in Barcelona, Spain, was streamed on March 5 by the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Virtual Stage, as part of the Candler Concert Series.
What strikes the viewer first is the unforced ease and naturalness of Montero at the keyboard. The charming and often-heard Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”) are given lots of variety in articulation, along with a prevailing sense of playfulness. The pieces are well characterized – spirited, or pensive, or stately. Nothing is overdone; the famous “Träumerei” is a little miracle of lyrical ease. The famous melody is gently spun out, with lots of space for dreaming and a flexible tempo. Montero gives a pensive, unhurried account of “Fast zu Ernst” and suitably peaceful, spacious “Kind im Einschlummern”. As is so often the case in music, the art is in the details; Montero has a great command of subtle dynamics.
After the Kinderszenen, the pianist turns from the keyboard to face the viewer: “Hello! Welcome to my home.” And the online audience does feel welcomed into Montero’s home, where she is seated at her piano as if on the concert stage. Here, however, is the one aspect of this recital that most viewers would probably like to change. We COVID-era viewers have become accustomed to concerts featuring sophisticated camera work, where the lens swoops down to capture various views of the artist – close-ups of the hands, views of the score, angles showing the performer’s facial expressions.
The second set presented selections from the Childhood Songs of Chick Corea, whom Montero considers “one of the greatest musical geniuses of this last century. There is a complexity and something very novel about his music. He is one of greatest musicians of all time.”
The Children’s Songs selections proved both sophisticated and ruminative, and they also possessed the energy of childhood – a scampering right-hand motif over a galloping left-hand figure. These aren’t easy pieces; jazzy and often intricate, they have an improvisatory air, and melodies that are sometimes reflective and sometimes full of the frenetic excitement of youth. Some of the pieces are very challenging, but Montero’s clean, nimble technique made them seem easy and engaging.
The program’s final set, Scenes from Childhood, focused on the pianist as composer, a role in which she made her debut 10 years ago with the tone poem Ex Patria, about Venezuela’s recent and troubled political history. Montero also has composed a piano concerto, the “Latin” Concerto.
In this set, one great advantage of the streamed concert was readily apparent: Montero, a warm and lovely presence on camera, speaking directly to her audience in a way that couldn’t be replicated in a larger concert hall.
“I’ve played this program many times in the last two years, before the world stopped,” she told the camera. “My idea was that each performance would be fresh and spontaneous recollections for me of these specific memories. The first memory was the sense I had as child waking up in Caracas, a concrete maze surrounded by the mountains. Somehow nature always imposes itself. This first piece is an impression of what I remember. Nothing has been written down: musically speaking, these are pieces that happen now and do not happen again.”
Subsequent movements in Montero’s “Scenes from Childhood” focused on other vivid subjects – for example, on wild parrots who fly all over the city: “Sometimes there would be six or seven of them on your balcony, like the city and wildness living together,” Montero explained. The third (“The Drunk”) was about a homeless man, often drunk, who walked up and down the street with salsa music playing from a little boom box on his shoulder. The fourth movement (“Missing Home”) starts out like a Chopin piece, whose repeated left-hand arpeggios and a plaintive minor melody in the right hand gave a sense of nostalgia, rising to an apex of sorrow and lamentation. The finale (“My Mother’s Lullaby”) is evocative and peaceful.
Montero’s program lists a final entry: “Improvisations.”
“These have no structure,” she told her audience.
“I sit at the piano — and the faucet opens. I play a once-in-a-lifetime rendition of a piece that doesn’t exist. It comes from a place that is a mystery. When I improvise, I get out of the way and connect to something primal and emotional.
“It’s very childlike, that inner child that remains a part of me,” Montero told her online viewers.
The improvisations that follow have the feeling of fully finished pieces: structurally cogent, and traditional in format. Some are gently reminiscent of Chopin; the opening of one piece might have been by Bach. There are almost no hesitations in Montero’s performance of music that has just been freshly invented. In five decades as a concertgoer, I’ve never heard anything quite like this. ■