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Gabriela Montero Baptizes Sidney Harman Hall

Washington Performing Arts Society inaugurated its relationship with the brand-new downtown venue, Sidney Harman Hall, with a recital by Venezuelan-American pianist Gabriela Montero on Saturday afternoon. From reading articles about her abilities as an improviser (you can listen to her profile on NPR), we have been keen to hear her play for a couple years, especially since she had to cancel her 2005 recital at the Corcoran. As you would expect of someone who took a Bronze Medal at the 1995 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, she was certainly technically impressive, if not rock solid, in a challenging program of three daunting works in the standard repertoire.

A weighty thud of Montero's hand plopped down on the Steinway's keyboard at the opening of Busoni's arrangement of the Bach chaconne. It was, it turns out, the hallmark of her style, tending toward strong attack and full sound over subtlety and shaping of melodic lines. This is not the best way to play Bach, but it is a very good way to play Busoni's thunderous refashioning of Bach, and it was thrilling to hear Montero maxed out on all those octaves. (Montero's hard-edged tone, tempestuous flair, and now wild hair often call to mind the elder pianist who has done so much to further her career, Martha Argerich -- Liszt, Prokofiev, Stravinsky should be strong suits.) There were sections that featured colorful contrasts of tone, but an overuse of the sustaining pedal muddied some of the finer fingerwork. While nothing is left to chance in the Bach-Busoni piece, the chaconne was at heart an improvisatory genre, and the remaining two pieces, sonatas by Chopin and Schumann, reinforced the theme of improvisation that ran through the program.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Classical Pianist Montero, Quite A 'Jingle' Belle (Washington Post, December 17)
Montero pushed the tempi of the first two movements of the second Chopin sonata (B-flat minor, op. 35), making for some exciting passages, especially in the repeated-note section (a forte of her technique) at the end of the first movement's exposition. The gentle trio was more pleasing than the scherzo, amped up just a notch or two too fast for sound control. The funeral march was too much of a plodding trudge, except for the middle section, a sotto voce evocation of happier days, but the fourth movement, played attacca from the end of the funeral march, was a dramatically effective, soft-pedaled blur of runs and arpeggios. A much less appealing and therefore less familiar piece, Schumann's first sonata "Eusebius and Florestan" (F-sharp minor, op. 11), continued the theme of improvisation. A brooding introduction to the first movement gave way to passages of heroic, Davidsbündler sounds. Montero seemed the most technically comfortable here and gave a broader range of colors and attacks, with a murky web of sound under a chiming melody in the second movement and a jokester's scherzo and Carnivalesque intermezzo.

Gabriela Montero improvising at the Kölner Philharmonie
(see more videos from the Cologne recital here)

Some of the audience headed for the exits at the end of the Schumann, not wanting to hear music created on the spot, but most of us stayed for the most unusual part of Gabriela Montero's performance. Appearing with a microphone in hand, she thanked us for staying and asked the audience to sing her some melodies to use as the basis for her improvisations. With all four of them (Puccini's Nessun dorma, Jingle Bells, Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1, and Beethoven's Ode to Joy), she listened, worked out the tune, played it through with more or less its usual harmonization, and then launched into the world of her musical fancy.

Gabriela Montero:
available at Amazon
Baroque Album

available at Amazon
Bach and Beyond

available at Amazon
Chopin, Falla, Ginestera
Some of her efforts were of greater interest than others, and in general she was more successful in her imitation of recognizable models (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Joplin rag, tango) than in her own occasionally nondescript style. Still, there is no doubt that she has a fecund imagination for harmony, melody, and rhythm, all of which were heard in admirable variety. For so many reasons, not the least important of which is the importance of extemporized embellishments needed to perform Baroque music, one hopes that the result of Montero's application of her improvisatory gifts to her concert career will be to inspire other classical musicians to take up improvisation. See more clips of her improvisations and even suggest a theme for her future improvisation podcasts, to be called "Live from My Living Room," at her Web site.

Sidney Harman Hall, an expansion of the Shakespeare Theater, has its glass and steel façade (reminiscent of the beautiful addition to the Pierpont Morgan Library) on F Street, facing the Verizon Center. Its main space -- black stage and dark wood details -- seats 775 people, in a wide arrangement, making the sound less warm and direct than the Terrace Theater to my ears, but still intimate. This new downtown venue, if an article in The Economist (Capital of culture, October 4) is to be believed, will help foster "an intellectual and artistic renaissance" in Washington. Charles Isherwood's article for the New York Times (The Graffiti of the Philanthropic Class, December 2) was snide but spot-on, taking note of the overabundance of large plain lettering in the space, with every possible architectural component named for a donor. Instead of chimes or flashing lights, an airport-style loudspeaker announcement chided the audience to return to their seats after intermission. That unfortunately cut into the buzz of my $3 (!) espresso.

The final WPAS concert for the calendar year is tomorrow night, featuring violist Jennifer Stumm (December 18, 7:30 pm) at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

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