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Gabriela Montero

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Boston Globe Special Inauguration Feature February 2009
An improvised life
Fame is finding Lexington's Gabriela Montero

''It was such a beautiful moment and such an honor to be there,'' she recalled of Inauguration Day festivities, where she played. ''But my God was it cold!'' (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

By Jeremy Eichler, Globe Staff | February 15, 2009

LEXINGTON - You might have caught a glimpse of her on Inauguration Day as the historic transfer of power was heralded not with marshal blasts of a military band but with the softer eloquence of chamber music. Television cameras lingered on luminaries Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, but she was there, too: an intensely focused woman shivering at the piano, jabbing the keys through thick black gloves without fingertips.
That was Gabriela Montero.
"I have the gloves right over there," she said, laughing as she gestured between sips of tea at her kitchen table a couple of weeks later. "It was such a beautiful moment and such an honor to be there. But my God was it cold!"
The inauguration was only one of the many stages on which Montero will be appearing this year. At 38, she is a rising star on the classical music scene who also happens to be a single mother living on a quiet block in Lexington, a virtuoso with a minivan. Increasingly famous in the broader musical world yet still almost invisible here, she has a remarkable talent for classical improvisation - a skill she suppressed for years but that has now become her calling card.
Typically at live performances, she spins out elaborate fantasies on themes that audi ence members call out on the spot, ranging from melodies by Bach to, quite recently, the fight song of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But beyond her impromptu keyboard soliloquies, Montero is a serious interpreter of the great composers of the past, one whose performances are often filled with a natural spontaneity and deeply felt emotion. And if the expressive range in her playing has perhaps a more searching quality than one typically encounters, that is because Montero is herself a musical wanderer who has searched most of her life for an authentic relationship to the art form she both loves and cannot escape. She hears music inside her head - not metaphorically but literally - 24 hours a day. Sometimes it is so loud, she says, it wakes her in her sleep.
As a former child prodigy, Montero has wrestled with the blessings and burdens of her gift for as long as she can remember. She was nearly done in by one negative teacher, she quit piano twice, and she was finally set on course by the reigning queen of the keyboard, Martha Argerich. These days Montero's career is flowering, especially in Europe. This week she returns to the Boston Philharmonic for performances of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto in Sanders Theatre and Jordan Hall, beginning Thursday.
In person, Montero has a warm presence and the introspective conversational style of the psychologist she once seriously considered becoming.
She is also notably open about the vicissitudes of her own artistic quest - and there have been many. "A lot of people ask me, 'Gabriela, why is all of this happening to you now that you're 38? What happened in your 20s?' It was life. It was about finding things, finding my own reasons for being a musician. All of that took some time."
Montero was born into a middle-class family in Caracas, and a toy piano was placed in her crib when she was only 7 months old. The spark was immediate. Rather than banging on the keys as most babies do, her first instinct was to prod them one at a time. She was soon playing the lullabies that her mother sang to her at night.
At 3, she was given a Chickering upright piano, and presented her first concert to all the neighbors: lullabies, children's songs, and the Venezuelan national anthem. She had also started to improvise.
Formal studies began soon afterward, but when she was 8, Montero's parents uprooted the entire family so that she could study with a new teacher in Miami. It proved a disastrous match, and even today she prefers not to talk about the experience. "It was just so negative and it took me in a direction that was completely different," she said. Her improvising talent was "put in a drawer and locked up. It was as if I had an ability that was not meant to be shared, or was of no use. Looking back, it was forfeiting a huge part of myself."
The lessons went on for 10 long years until she was 18, at which point Montero quit piano altogether and returned to Caracas, volunteering in hospitals and searching for meaningful work far from the piano. But the music in her head - she calls it "24-hour radio" - did not cease when she stopped playing. "My nature was haunting me," she said. After two years, she relented and sent off a tape to London's Royal Academy of Music. She was accepted with a full scholarship.
Her teacher in London, pianist Hamish Milne, helped her rebuild her spirits and consolidate her technique, and in her mid-20s she entered the venerable Chopin Competition in Warsaw. She won third prize, but more important, experienced a kind of revelation about her own playing.
"When I sat down to play in Warsaw, I felt heat coming through my body," she said. "I don't know what it was, but it was a physical sensation. I was so connected, and I played with a sense of meaning, and pain, and emotion. Everything was real. I was finally starting to reach that core, that sense of why I would ever be drawn to music. It was a sense of being connected to something far bigger and far more beautiful. That was the beginning of my discovering music. I was 25 years old."
Despite her keyboard epiphany in Warsaw, Montero again lost her confidence and by 2001, she was living in Montreal, raising her first daughter, and planning a new career in psychology. Then Argerich, the great Argentine pianist, passed through town. Montero paid her a visit to get some career advice.
It turned out Argerich had little patience for Montero's new ideas about psychology school. Instead, she insisted that Montero play for her. Montero agreed, reluctantly, and met Argerich the next night at Montreal's Place des Arts at 1:30 in the morning.
She began with some Beethoven and Schumann, and then finally summoned the courage to improvise what she called a musical portrait of Argerich. When she finished some 20 minutes later, Argerich was speechless. "She said 'Gabrielita, why doesn't anybody know about this!'," Montero recalled. "She was delighted like a little girl."
It was a transformative night, as Argerich returned home and began spreading the word, and Montero soon started receiving phone calls from concert-presenters all over the world. With Argerich's encouragement, she also began improvising during concerts, in both cadenzas and encores.
The art of improvisation has its own venerable history in classical music, and many of the great composers were known to be astounding improvisers. But the practice faded in the 20th century, becoming almost exclusively the province of jazz musicians. In fact it's so rarely encountered in today's buttoned-down classical world that Montero's audiences were often totally perplexed ("people would look at me like I was going to strip naked") or they would simply not grasp that the music was actually being invented on the spot.
So Montero started soliciting themes for the improvisation from the audience. Once she has the theme and begins to play, she described, "what happens is immediate, there's no filter - it's like a very direct stream that is downloaded at that moment." Often her mind is improvising even when she's doing other things. "It's funny," she said in the middle of a recent conversation, "there's a little noise coming from the basement right now - probably from the heater. That has become the rhythmic background to an improvisation that's going on in my head as I talk to you."
Not all listeners have been won over by the style of her improvisations, but most agree that her talent in that area enables her to bring an arresting fluidity and naturalness to her interpretations of works by other composers.
"There is a freshness, a virulent intensity of creativity that is very, very rare," said Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and a friend of Montero's. "I've done concerts with her in South Africa and London and it's always the same. The audience goes crazy as if she's touching a part of them that is not normally reached in a musical performance." In an e-mailed statement, Yo-Yo Ma, who helped bring Montero on board for the inauguration, praised the "simplicity and joy of life that is the essence of her music-making."
As for her new local ties, Montero moved to the Boston area in 2007, drawn by the quality of its schools for her two girls, ages 11 and 6. "My romantic life until about five years ago had been very complex," she said, "but the wonderful fruit of my relationships are my two beautiful daughters."
Montero's mother lives with them and helps out when Montero is on tour. With trips to Puerto Rico and Central Europe looming, she spoke openly about how taxing the soloist's life can be. "I'm doing it, a lot of people are doing it, but I think it's become a little superhuman, to be honest."
Soloists don't typically talk about such things, but Montero wishes it were otherwise. "I'd like to see artists sharing a bit more about how their lives really are," she said, "what their struggles really are, and why they feel the sacrifice is worth it."
When those questions are turned back to her, Montero does not hesitate. "Being a single mom in a way has given me the strength and the focus to also build my career, for my kids, for myself. I do it because I need to give my message through music - or the composer's message - and to relate to Schumann, to Rachmaninoff, to Brahms. It connects me to their humanity, and to what links us as human beings. It's a very instinctive need I have, like eating and sleeping. And finally, of course, it's the development of who I am - who I was born as - and what I've found in my journey along the way. I think the whole point is to find a speaking voice with one's hands, and then to tell a story. That for me is the beautiful part."