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Ludwig Van
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INTERVIEW | Why Pianist Gabriela Montero Will Not Shy Away

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on November 23, 2018

Gabriela Montero has collected many stories in her life so far: a baby playing the songs her mother sang on a toy piano in the crib.  A young girl away from home at the tender age of nine in the foreign city of Miami for music education for almost 10 years.  A human rights advocate who communicates through now, in classical piano improvisations and compositions.

This Sunday, she will be sitting down at the piano in the Koerner Hall to present her latest program, “Innocence and Experience.”  Gently, as the light darkens at the stroke of 3 pm, she will unfold these stories, of herself, of the world, and where her heart is — Venezuela.

Venezuela

Her connection to the piano was an immediate one. “I did have an early beginning with music,” Gabriela remembers.  Seeing Gabriela playing back the songs on a two-octave toy piano in her crib, the family found her a lovely piano teacher, Lyl Tiempo, who happened to live in the apartment above Gabriela’s family.  But a few years later, Lyl moved out to Europe, and Gabriela was sent on her way to study Piano in Miami with a scholarship from the Venezuelan government; she was just nine years old.

“It was very difficult.  It was really hard to leave Venezuela, my country — and my family and my home,” said Gabriela. “I’ve always had a very strong attachment to Venezuela.”

Unfortunately, Gabriela’s experience in Miami was a negative one, and after years of studying piano there, she returned to Caracas at age 17 and stopped playing the piano altogether.

“I hated music; I hated being a musician. It was a time of great questioning for me. I came back to Caracas and did social work.”

But when she sent a recording to London, out of curiosity, she was immediately offered a full scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music.

“It was miraculous how I ended up in London. I didn’t even have enough money to get there.”

Studying with Hamish Milne, Gabriela rekindled her gift of musical narrative, especially of improvisation.

“I always improvised. It’s been the way I communicate, to tell my stories. I sit down, and music just flows out.  I always say I get out-of-the-way… for me, music is a metaphor to life, to stories, and improvisation has always been there.”

Back To Toronto

This Sunday’s program is built on two concepts: of innocence — that of childhood, of purity, and experience — the difficult world we live in, with a special focus on the current suffering of Venezuelans.  It’s the culmination of her last 10 years’ work, as an artist and human rights advocate.

“I put this program together to talk about who we are as a society, and not to shy away from sending messages out to the world — in my case, about Venezuela and what has been happening there since Chavez took power in 1999, and the deep humanitarian crisis that we are unfortunately drowning in. But to speak about it, as I compose, I denounce the press, I am a voice for the voiceless Venezuelans, and this program is my way of reflecting, somehow, the best we can be. The innocence of childhood and its connection to purity, and our experience, such as suffering under the Stalinist oppression and the way that one has to live in a totalitarian regime… my life has been changed by the Venezuelan situation, something that I did not choose. It was something that happened in my lifetime.”

Schumann’s Kinderszenen grouped with selections from Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs, and her own Memories from Childhood will complete the Innocence half. There is no standard version of her memories:  “I improvise my five pieces from my Venezuelan Childhood. These are just memories I have; there’s nothing written.  Every Time I do it, it’s different.  But this is my way of telling the stories of Venezuela and what it means to me —  who I was at the time, and the specific memories I have, and I love bringing them to life with improvisation.”

The rest of the program consists of Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No.2 and Gabriela’s improvisations.

On a Limb

The idea of interpretation as an individual speaking through a pre-existing text/set/choreography, mostly created by a third-party, is standard practice in performance arts, especially in Classical music.  In fact, the personalization of the standard text is one of the most interesting and controversial topic: Who plays it how?

Taking it one step further by speaking directly (through one’s own pre-composed pieces), then another step by creating in real-time (improvisation): these two steps are seldom taken in Classical music. Somehow we’ve lost the courage and interest in playing and experimenting.  However, we’ve all done it as children- to create, to make stuff up, to simply communicate in non-verbal and verbal sound, gesture and looks. Perhaps it was our innocence that allowed us not to be concerned about criticism and the status quo.

To see Gabriela’s program is an interesting proposition: what and how would you expect, as an audience, when faced with such a program?

It’s a variety that we don’t often see, and as Classical musicians often talk about improvisation in hushed voices in awe, it’s worthwhile to note her conviction, the power of personal narrative in its purest form.

If you are curious, do come, in the cold November afternoon, to hear the stories that she will tell, of her warm Venezuelan childhood, and of people whose stories need to be told, if only made possible through a brave champion.

++++

Gabriela Montero: Innocence and Experience, 25 November 2018, 3 pm at Koerner Hall. Details here.

Hye Won Cecilia Lee
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Hye Won Cecilia Lee

Cecilia tumbled into 'serious' music study when she decided to avoid attending medical school. Currently working in the field of classical music, recording, and Korean-English interpretation, she tends to get her nose dirty in many different things in the city. Cecilia holds a DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
Follow me
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
Follow me

Hye Won Cecilia Lee

Cecilia tumbled into 'serious' music study when she decided to avoid attending medical school. Currently working in the field of classical music, recording, and Korean-English interpretation, she tends to get her nose dirty in many different things in the city. Cecilia holds a DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
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