Gabriela Montero is not only one of the most talented pianists of her generation, but she is also one of the most innovative. The Venezuelan-born classical musician has won many awards for her recordings, compositions and performances, including a Latin Grammy in 2015 and the 2018 Heidelberger Frühling Music Award, given by the annual festival of the same name in Germany.

Montero has exhibited tremendous skill and creativity in her performances of the masters: Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Prokofiev. But she also possesses a rare talent for improvising, based on tunes or themes suggested by audiences, or to accompany other media, such as silent films.

The 51-year-old pianist will perform at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 5, in a concert presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. She will perform her newly developed Westward Program, featuring Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, Five Pieces for Piano, Op. 17; Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 14; Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36; Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, and an improvised piano score to accompany a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s film, “The Immigrant.”

Gabriela Montero, piano

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

When: Sunday, Dec. 5 at 8 p.m.

Cost: Tickets start at $25

Contact: 949-854-4646 or PhilharmonicSociety.org

Voice of OC recently caught up with Montero as she was traveling in Mexico on personal business. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Voice of OC: Can you tell us something about growing up in Venezuela and how old you were when you started playing piano? 

Gabriela Montero: My family moved to the U.S. with me when I was 8 with a Venezuelan government scholarship at the time, so I could study with someone in the U.S.

And my beginnings with the piano were quite amazing, because I don’t come from a musical family, and my mom went out to buy Christmas gifts for all the kids in the family, and saw this little toy piano. She bought it for my cousin, who’s older than me. And my grandmother insisted, when she saw this piano, that it be given to me. Now I was just 8 months old on my first Christmas. Even though my parents found it a bit ridiculous to give a little baby a little piano, they did. And they noticed that the first thing I did was just kind of recognize it, and then take out my second finger and start to play note by note. This they found really, really interesting.

My mom would sing to me to put me to sleep, all of these Venezuelan songs and lullabies, and I would just sit there for hours and try and pick out the tunes. They also found that particularly interesting. By the time I was 4, I was already playing this repertoire of children’s songs and lullabies, everything by ear. They took me to the best Venezuelan piano teacher at the time. I wound up studying with her …. I gave my first concerto performance when I was 8.

VOC: When did you know you wanted to become a professional pianist? 

Montero: Well, I was born a pianist, so there was never really a choice. I think that’s an ongoing question in life. Are you your talent? Are you somehow imprisoned by that, or is it something that liberates you? But what happens to the other facets of you as a human being that maybe don’t have the opportunity to develop because of this talent. It’s an ongoing philosophical question of what do we dedicate our lives to. I always knew that I couldn’t turn my back on my nature.

Being a professional pianist means connecting to very, very deep parts of myself, and connecting to the public on a very deep, emotional level. That’s what I love the most about it — that human connection that is created through the experience of sharing something as abstract, but at the same time, as meaningful as music.

VOC: Where do you reside currently? 

Montero: I live between Europe and the U.S. It’s a back and forth.

VOC: How old were you when you started to improvise on the piano?

Montero: I was a baby when I started to improvise. It was really the very first thing I would do, would just be to play out this imagination. Even in my daily life, if I had a fight with my brother, or if I was annoyed with my dad, I would sit down at the piano and improvise. These improvisations were recorded by my mom. We have over 150 tapes of improvisations from the age of 8 months old, basically.  

VOC: What was it like to perform at Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential inauguration? 

Montero: To perform at Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration was incredible, because obviously it was a historic moment, and I was very honored to be a part of it. I’m not just speaking on the political side, but also I just felt that that day, there was a real cohesion with everyone, between everyone. I felt that there was so much pride (among) African Americans to have this leader, and for all of the U.S. to somehow go into what we thought was the beginning of a healing process. It was incredibly moving. It was also incredibly cold (laughs).

VOC: Have you visited or performed in Orange County before? 

Montero: I have visited and performed in Orange County. I have very, very dear friends who live in the Laguna Beach area. We actually lived in L.A. for a couple of years; we lived in Palos Verdes. So we know the area very well, and have lots of dear, dear friends who live in that area. And I suppose a lot of them will be coming to the concert. It’s been a few years since we were back. I’m really, really looking forward to that. It’s a beautiful part of the world.   

We have a very, very dear friend whose name is Ky Garmhausen, who’s an incredible sculptor and painter with an incredible story. One of the beaches on Laguna Beach — they call it “Kyland,” because he’s a master surfer; he’s a soul surfer. He’s famous in the area. He will be coming to the concert. He’s somebody that we adore.

VOC: Tell us something about your newly developed “Westward” program.

Montero: So the “Westward” program I designed basically because I always try and use my programs, composing and time to illustrate situations or issues that I find pressing and urgent to speak about. Of course, Venezuela is my No. 1 priority. But I think immigration is very much on everybody’s mind, and this program is really designed around the subject of immigration. That’s why it ends with my improvisation of Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Immigrant.”

Now, the three composers — Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Stravinsky — knew each other, and they ended up living in the West, in the U.S. So it’s a wonderful way to highlight the incredible contributions of immigrants, and historically, how they’ve kind of been interwoven with their political situations at the time. But the music that came out of these pivotal historical moments, and also the value of us as immigrants, because I’m also an immigrant. So it’s a wonderful way to bring to today three geniuses of the past who share that in common, and then the summit of the program is the film. It just kind of brings everything together, and then hopefully opens up conversations in the public about the theme of immigration.

VOC: Tell us something about improvising alongside Charlie Chaplin’s film, “The Immigrant.” 

Montero: When I improvise along Charlie Chaplin’s film, you’ll see there’s a big screen, and then I have a monitor. That’s for me the ultimate in artistic freedom. Something happens when I improvise on a neurologic level, actually. I tap into a different side of my brain when I improvise, and this is all part of a big MRI study that was done at Johns Hopkins Hospital with Dr. Charles Lim, which will become a documentary. The study of how my brain behaves when I improvise, versus when I play the repertoire, the memorized repertoire, is really fascinating, because what they came to see, after two hours of me being in that tunnel, was that I basically use two very different parts of my brain when I do one task or do the other.

When I sit down and I watch that screen, I don’t even know what I’m doing. I don’t even control it. It just happens by itself, and every time it’s different. For me, I just call it getting it out of the way.

VOC: I have read that you are a committed advocate for human rights. What do you think about the current situation in Venezuela? 

Montero: I am very committed to human rights. I have been for 11 years fighting and denouncing the Venezuelan regime, the dictatorship, what is now known to be a narco-mafia and a criminal structure, which goes way beyond politics. And it’s been a very difficult, difficult path. As an artist, you’re just used to being applauded and admired, and your life is about bringing this music to life. So much of it is beauty and hopefully truth.

And then you become a human rights activist for what is the collapse of the country, you position yourself, and that means you’re going to get a lot of animosity, to put it lightly, from the other side, which is a very dark side. So that has been really, really hard for me.

But I think the world is now finally seeing what has been developing and festering in Venezuela since 1999, and it’s evident. Nobody can refute all the things that I have been warning against and that I have been talking about, and nobody can refute that the collapse of Venezuela thanks to Chávismo (the government of former President Hugo Chávez) is a tragedy.

The reality is that 92% of the country is now living in poverty, and that’s the people that I am concerned about.

VOC: Do you have children of your own and have you encouraged them to play the piano? 

Montero: I have two girls, and I did try to encourage them to play the piano, not necessarily classical music. But as it happens with many children of performers, there was really no interest. But my youngest, who’s 19 now, she’s a fantastic country music singer/songwriter, and it’s something that she might pursue. She’s very, very talented. And my oldest has a beautiful voice as well, but she wants to do something other than music.

VOC: Is there a career highlight that you could kindly share? 

Montero: In 2019, I was the first woman in Carnegie Hall history to play her own concerto, apparently, and that was quite something. I am returning to play a recital in Carnegie Hall on March 18, and I’m very happy to have been invited by Carnegie Hall to do this.

Winning a Latin Grammy (for best classical music album) for my piece, “Ex Patria,” with Hoy Orchestra of the Americas and (conductor) Carlos Miguel Prieto was a highlight, because it’s very difficult to give a space for a piece like “Ex Patria,” which is so confrontationally political against the regime in Venezuela, that I didn’t think it would make it so far and be recognized. That was quite a moment, because I think at some point truth just surfaces, and just kicks through that barrier.  

VOC: What is next for you? 

Montero: Well, a lot of concerts are coming back that unfortunately disappeared because of COVID. I’m hoping to do my next recording in the next year.

And I have something wonderful happening now called the Gabriela Montero Piano Lab, which is going to be online. I’ve selected nine amazing pianists of high level, all from different parts of the world, and I’ve created a mentorship program, which means that I will be not only teaching them, but becoming involved with their lives, and trying to guide them.   

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.


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