by Margaret Chrystall
CELEBRATING the music of South America will be a bitter sweet experience for pianist, composer and improviser Gabriela Montero.
In 2009, when Gabriela was invited to play at American President Barack Obama’s inauguration, she spoke out about the thousands of murders happening in her homeland of Venezuela – and, now the first honorary consul of Amnesty Intrnational, has continued to do so since.
But music has been part of her life since she was seven-months-old, her gran gave her a toy piano and she carefully hit the keys with her index finger not her baby fist.
Gabriela is the soloist who will play Mozart’s 14th piano concerto when Scottish Ensemble come to Eden Court on Tuesday with a programme of South American music including composers Villa-Lobos and Piazzolla.
But Gabriela also has another composer in mind – herself!
The world premiere of her first piano concerto is three weeks away in Leipzig. Since she was 31, Gabriela’s concerts have included her talent for instantly improvising on a melody suggested to her by an audience – and for the last few years Gabriela has been expanding that into full compositions.
"I have so much surplus music going on in my head, it just has to go somewhere, 24 hours a day I am improvising and composing," she explains.
"It’s as if I live in a movie and am creating a film score as I watch everything happen."
Talking from her Barcelona home this week, she says: "Improvisation is composition in the moment.
"But to elaborate that into a 30-minute concerto which is very complex, is very difficult."
And she laughs: "The piano part has finger-twisting bits which I’m cursing myself for!"
For many years, Gabriela kept her improvisational talents under wraps – which must have been difficult as music is with her all the time.
She says: "I think it’s just the way my brain works, it’s just wired completely musically.
"Right now my husband is in the kitchen doing the dishes and I can hear the glasses clinking and one of the notes is a D and the other is a G!"
Her first improvisation came when as a five-year-old she began to play around at the piano with the tune of the Venezuelan national anthem her mum sang to her every night.
She says: "Music is what I was born for, it isn’t always what I wanted, but it’s just the way I am. It is the same with my improvisation.
"I was doing that right from the very beginning and I didn’t know what it was or what it was called.
"I didn’t know that it was something that was unusual. It was always my way of communicating with the piano, with myself, with others.
"Most of all, it’s just having no boundaries or rules and this weaves into complex improvisations that come from nowhere and go nowhere – they are just in the moment."
But with a brilliant career in classical music ahead of her, Gabriela was warned to keep quiet about her talent for improvisation.
She explains: "It began with a teacher I had in Miami from when I was eight – who was completely the wrong person for me.
"She said ‘Don’t improvise, it’s not worth anything!’.
"So I withdrew from it and kept it for myself and thought ‘That’s just how it is’."
Argentinian pianist and teacher Martha Argerich changed that for Gabriela,
"It took the great Martha when I was 31 – who listened to me play Beethoven and Schumann for her and then I improvised – to recognise what it was.
"She just said to me in a very matter-of-fact Martha fashion ‘I don’t understand why you don’t do this – why doesn’t anyone know you do this? It’s so special’.
"It has been an incredible experience to see how excited audiences become when they see the creative process."
Learning and playing classical music and improvising use two different parts of the brain.
Gabriela says: "I’m like the weird three-headed animal pretty much – in the classical piano world improvisation just doesn’t happen.
"Actually, I am in the middle of editing a documentary about just that.
"There’s a medical paper and study about my brain! It’s incredible how we are these crazy machines."
Watch a YouTube clip of Gabriela instantly taking the Harry Potter theme suggested to her by a member of an audience and transforming the simple melody into something amazing – and it’s close to magic.
She laughs: "It is a kind of magic, in a way, because it disappears. "But there are no tricks, though. That’s the difference!
"It becomes a very communal experience. I’ve had concerts where 3,000 people were singing to me, one song, this mass of voices – a choir of strangers become somehow united in this.
"Sometimes they start to talk to each other and there is a barrier that is broken that is so unnecessary in the classical world, though this is also serious classical music.
"I love to see that."
Gabriela also speaks out about the situation in her homeland of Venezuela.
"My first piece was Ex Patria which I wrote in 2011, specificially to give a voice to the situation in Venezuela, the social political and humanitarian crisis that has been happening there for the past 17 years. I felt that as a composer and performer the best way that I can speak about the tragedy of my country was to write it in music and I dedicated it to the 19, 336 victims of homicide there in 2011.
Last year it was 27,875 in one year. There have been over 250,000 homicides in the last 14 years. It’s because of the total collapse of the country. What we have is not a government but a narco-state and a dictatoral regime. To put it into context, more lives have been lost to homicide in the last three years in Venezuela than all the lives lost in the Vietnam War. So we’re talking about numbers that are unthinkable.
"It was a great honour in 2009 to take part in what I thought was a really historical healing for the United States with President Obama’s inauguration. I got quite a kick out of the fact that I was invited, but the Venezuelan president of the time, Hugo Chavez, was not. That felt like a little victory and it was wonderful to be there and playing with Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma.
"When I recorded one of my first albums with EMI who traditionally have a red, black and white logo – it was a programme of South American music called Sonatino – I asked them to remove the red in the logo and make it black and white as a sign of mourning because red was the colour of Chavez and his government and it was a way of denouncing what the colour red stand for in my country.
"There has been a complete social and economic collapse in Veneuela, people are dying because they can’t get medicine – aspirin or access to their cancer treatment.
"We have a friend here in Barcelona and he was going to Caracas with a whole suitcase full with medicine for friends and family who have been asking for their medication.
"What kind of artist are you if you are not a voice – or somehow a photographer to the society around you, the sufferings of society because you are a part of it as well.
"I feel our responsibility should not be limited to being entertainers or performers, but being informers of truth and realities however difficult they are to convey.
"So it has become very much a part of who I am and what I do because there are so few public figures in my world, in the classical world who will talk about these things.
"For me, silence is not an option."
Gabriela Montero will play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 14 in E flat major when she appears with the Scottish Ensemble on Tuesday, March 8 at Eden Court when the programme also includes Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos and Bach. Earlier that night (6.45pm) there will be a free talk about South American culture