Friday, March 11, 2011

Music review: Montero entertains in vivid style at Boca fest

Gabriela Montero. (Photo by Colin Bell)

By Greg Stepanich

The Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero has carved out a useful niche for herself as a musician who recalls an‭ ‬earlier tradition of performers who improvised in concert.

Her recital Thursday night during the fifth Festival of the Arts Boca ended with four of her improvisations,‭ ‬but it was the rest of her program that provided the highest interest from a purely musical point of view.‭

Most of Montero‭’‬s recital at the Cultural Arts Center in Mizner Park contained music of Latin America,‭ ‬including a major sonata by Alberto Ginastera.‭ ‬She opened the evening,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬with two of the four Ballades of Frederic Chopin.

In both of the Ballades‭ ‬– No.‭ ‬1‭ ‬in G minor‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬23‭) ‬and No.‭ ‬4‭ ‬in F minor‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬52‭) ‬– Montero established herself as a pianist of the poetic persuasion.‭ ‬Tempos were loose,‭ ‬melodies were front and center,‭ ‬and she made the most of unexpected moments such as the sudden series of‭ ‬soft‭ ‬C-major chords before the coda in the Fourth Ballade,‭ ‬or the descending octaves in the first‭ ‬agitato section of the First Ballade,‭ ‬which she held on to as long as‭ ‬feasible‭ ‬before cranking up the G minor motor.

‭ ‬She demonstrated also a large and impressive,‭ ‬if not immaculate,‭ ‬technique,‭ ‬but she was able to bring off the showier moments of both pieces in generally admirable fashion.‭ ‬But while her playing of the First Ballade made a strong impact,‭ ‬the climactic A major repeat of the second theme was pounded rather than played with majesty,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the performance as a whole was missing a level of polish and command that would have made the contrasting sections stand out more and the piece overall communicate more effectively.

Montero was better in the Fourth Ballade,‭ ‬where the pages of angry triplets in the last pages were nice and clean,‭ ‬and the opening bars were hushed and almost motionless,‭ ‬for a very pretty effect.‭ ‬Best of all was the short quasi-canon passage before the recap,‭ ‬for which the tempo slowed and each hand played its lines with‭ ‬Bachian purity,‭ ‬creating a moody,‭ ‬ruminative feel that set up the return of the initial music beautifully.

A set of four pieces by the Cuban pianist-composer Ernesto Lecuona came next.‭ ‬Lecuona‭’‬s work is greatly admired in some circles,‭ ‬but this is music of scant merit,‭ ‬in which‭ ‬commonplace tunes‭ ‬are presented through a scrim of tattered Liszt.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬Montero played all four‭ ‬– Malagueña,‭ ‬La Cumparsa,‭ ‬Cordoba,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Gitanerias‭ ‬– with style and panache,‭ ‬and a heightened sense of rhythm and color.‭ ‬The high point came in the second strain of‭ ‬Cordoba,‭ ‬which Montero performed with surpassing delicacy and gentleness.

The program listed the‭ ‬Danzas Criollas of Ginastera next,‭ ‬but Montero skipped it,‭ ‬and my notes indicate she next played‭ ‬Brejeiro,‭ ‬a well-known tango by the Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth.‭ ‬This got a sunny,‭ ‬straightforward reading,‭ ‬and the first half closed with‭ ‬Joropo,‭ ‬by the Venezuelan composer Moisés Moleiro‭ (‬1904-1979‭)‬.

Based on a folk dance in which colorful skirts play an important role‭ (‬as Montero explained in remarks to the half-full house‭)‬,‭ ‬this is an exciting,‭ ‬well-written piece with a vivid sense of movement and color,‭ ‬and Montero gave it plenty of fire.

The sole programmed work on the second half was the Sonata No.‭ ‬1‭ ‬of Ginastera,‭ ‬which Montero called‭ “‬a titanic work‭”‬ that‭’‬s now getting its due.‭ ‬She played it‭ ‬very‭ ‬well,‭ ‬and with relative restraint considering how often Ginastera‭’‬s compositional aesthetic gives performers the green light to play with as much force and volume as possible.

In the finale,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬the rapidly shifting rhythm was clearly and precisely‭ ‬marked,‭ ‬not hammered,‭ ‬and that helped the clustered chords that appear later in the movement sound logical rather than yet another element of aggressive tone-painting.‭ ‬The first movement,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬had this same quality of tensile clarity,‭ ‬while let the chief falling-scale theme speak with different colors each time it appeared.

The slow third movement expressed desolation,‭ ‬just as Montero promised it would,‭ ‬and her deliberate,‭ ‬quiet reading of this music gave the audience a glimpse into another part of Montero‭’‬s art.

Montero takes audience suggestions for themes to improvise upon,‭ ‬and insists that the themes be familiar to all the listeners.‭ ‬The crowd was very enthusiastic,‭ ‬and divided between‭ “‬Latins and non-Latins,‭”‬ as Montero said,‭ ‬which at one point led her‭ ‬to veto two tunes suggested by the Latin partisans,‭ ‬including‭ ‬Caballo Viejo,‭ ‬on grounds of general unfamiliarity.

The first theme,‭ ‬suggested by festival founder Charlie Siemon,‭ ‬was Harold Arlen‭’‬s‭ ‬Somewhere Over the Rainbow,‭ ‬for which Montero used the first eight bars,‭ ‬and‭ ‬gave it a J.S.‭ ‬Bach-Ferruccio Busoni treatment,‭ ‬its snappy ornamentations augmented by big Romantic octaves in the bass.

Billy Joel‭’‬s‭ ‬Piano Man came next,‭ ‬first played like a Chopin waltz,‭ ‬then transformed into the minor for a Lecuona-like habanera.‭ ‬Another‭ ‬habanera,‭ ‬the one by Sebastián Iradier that Georges Bizet appropriated for‭ ‬Carmen,‭ ‬followed,‭ ‬and this also received a Chopinesque setting,‭ ‬with some Liszt added to the mix.

The final theme was Consuelito Velazquez‭’‬s‭ ‬1940s standard‭ ‬Bésame Mucho,‭ ‬and this returned Montero to Bach-Busoni territory,‭ ‬ending in a similar fashion to the Arlen song,‭ ‬with a proud tower of descending motifs built on a triumphant tonic major-key triad at the close.‭

The musical vocabulary that Montero is able to access at a moment‭’‬s notice is impressive,‭ ‬and there‭’‬s no gainsaying her overall level of ease and comfort at the keyboard.‭ ‬But it‭’‬s worth noting that these improvisations are basically clever evocations of well-known styles in which any tune at all could‭ ‬be dropped and still work.

That‭’‬s not to say it‭’‬s not entertaining,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s a much-needed revival of a‭ ‬19th-century fashion of concertizing that put a greater premium on audience connection and performer spontaneity.‭ ‬I just wonder what would happen if Montero improvised at a more demanding level:‭ ‬Could she make something as bleak as the third movement of the Ginastera sonata out of‭ ‬Piano Man if she took the notes and let them wander where they will‭?

Questions of entertainment,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬are paramount,‭ ‬but‭ ‬I think Montero could do it.‭ ‬The difficulty for her is that what she does now comes so easily to her that she may shrink from stretching herself in the belief that her audience won‭’‬t follow her.‭ ‬But we will,‭ ‬and it‭’‬d be exciting to hear her try.

The‭ ‬Festival of the Arts Boca‭‭ ‬continues tonight with a screening of The Wizard of Oz,‭ ‬with live accompaniment from the Boca Raton Symphonia conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos.‭ ‬The movie begins at‭ ‬7:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬in the Count de Hoernle Amphitheater in Mizner Park,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬For more information,‭ ‬call‭ ‬866-571-2787.

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