Friday, 8 March 2013

Review: Gabriela Montero at Live at LICA

Gabriela Montero

Gabriela Montero at Live at LICA
Thursday, 7 March 2013
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University
Reviewed by Henry Prince

There were two piano recitals on Thursday night at Live at LICA. The first one was played out by a music student on a shiny but not quite in tune and with not the best adjusted action Yamaha upright in the foyer. The second was the one billed as the main event and took place in the Great Hall on the still almost brand new, perfectly tuned and perfectly adjusted Steinway reputedly worth £100,000. The student had the tougher job of coaxing his instrument to make the sounds he was looking for. But, as he said, a pianist must work with whatever equipment he or she has at his or her disposal and simply make the best of it.

The third year degree student (an apparently disappearing breed at Lancaster University) made the best of the upright before the start of the main concert and then enjoyed, with the rest of us, hearing Gabriela Montero make the best of the concert grand put at her disposal. What an amazing piece of hardware it is! How fortunate we all were to have the opportunity to hear such a magnificent instrument!

Dame Fanny Waterman, co-founder of the Leeds Piano Competition, maintains that three elements are necessary for music to come alive. A concept must be created by the composer; a performer must convert the concept into sound; and an audience must inspire the performer to do well. All three elements were present on Thursday night, as was also the unspoken prerequisite that the instrument available to the performer must be fit for purpose - a requirement more than satisfied by this marvellous instrument.

Ms Montero asked for the full range of its grandeur, from adagio pianissimo to vivace fortissimo, confident that the kit was up to the task. The piano behaved exactly as a £100 grand machine should and gave back its best.

She began with a conventional classical piano recital programme: Brahms’ three lullaby pieces of Op 117 followed by the third Chopin Scherzo. Here we experienced the first exposure to the crisp, accurate execution that Ms Montero would demonstrate throughout the evening. The Brahms Intermezzi in particular exposed the performer’s sensitive touch and the careful positioning by the performer of each note in the overall sound texture was exquisite to behold.

The remainder of the first half of the evening was given over to non-European composers which were less well known. Some of us in the audience were relieved to hear that Ms Montero was herself a belated discoverer of the music of the Brazilian Ernesto Nazareth, whose music she described as “not complicated but fun”. And it was.

The pre-interval programme also included a set of Spanish-style dances by the Cuban Lecuona as well as pieces by the Argentine Ginastera, including the latter’s piano sonata no. 1. Much could be written academically about either of these pieces but just to enjoy the sounds being released from the glorious Steinway by Ms Montero’s skilled fingers was satisfaction enough. We came to listen and when the playing at last came to an end, we were filled to the brim with music.

The focus of the evening after the break was entirely different. Ms Montero called for four well-known themes, each of which the audience, clearly well prepared for this challenge, supplied readily. As each theme was proffered in turn, Ms Montero would play the tune several times as her creative mind went into gear. Then she would extemporise on the melody in whatever way she felt moved. Gershwin’s ‘Somebody Loves Me’ became a hitherto undiscovered section of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto. A Supertramp motif was treated as Baroque counterpoint which almost, but not quite, became a multi-voice fugue. The first subject of the opening movement of Grieg’s A minor concerto transformed into a stand-alone piece in its own right. And ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ took on the unfamiliar guise, surprisingly, of a non-canonic ditty.

All the improvisations were good fun and thoroughly entertaining and Ms Montero clearly enjoyed her “musical freedom” in this part of the programme. Near the end, however, she took the opportunity to introduce a serious note occasioned by the death two days previously of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the land of her birth. Ms Montero composed extemporaneously a piece expressing her own personal social and political comment on the legacy of 14 years of “violence, injustice, kidnapping and murder”: 14 years of “decay”. Based on her own theme, a simple rising 5-note figure, her creation was a fitting memorial.

The citizens of Lancaster were out in force for the evening. It was gratifying that the audience was so attentive and indeed apparently so healthy (no coughing). As is common at piano recitals, many chose to sit on the left side of the hall to gain a good view of the keyboard. What is not generally appreciated, however, is that, pianos being percussive instruments, unless you have the nearest thing to a direct line between your ears and the points at which the hammers strike the strings, you will not hear the delicious attack of each note of these costly mechanical contraptions. The best position is standing beside the piano so that you can look down on the strings. Not practicable though, so the next best place is where you can see the hammers by a single reflection (off the underside of the lid). That means you should be sitting somewhere on the right. If you can see the keyboard, you will not be able to see, and therefore will not hear at their best, those carefully voiced strings being hit by all those expensive hammers!

H. Prince

Gabriela Montero's website:

Tickets for the show cost: Adults £17.50, Seniors, unemployed and disabled (essential companion free) £14.50, students and under 16s £7.

To find out about future Live at LICA events visit
or call the box office on 01524 594151.

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