Classical Pianist Montero, Quite A 'Jingle' Belle

Gabriela Montero's finale was a witty improvisation on audience requests.
Gabriela Montero's finale was a witty improvisation on audience requests. (By Jim Cooper -- Associated Press)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

Gabriela Montero's Saturday afternoon recital at the Harman Center for the Arts was remarkable in a number of ways: as the local debut of a strong, sensitive and deeply musical pianist; as the first Washington Performing Arts Society presentation in an attractive new venue; and as an opportunity to hear one of Robert Schumann's less familiar works for keyboard.

But it is likely that the afternoon will be remembered most indelibly for Montero's grand finale -- a set of elaborate, on-the-spot improvisations on themes suggested by the audience: Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," "Jingle Bells," the most familiar of Erik Satie's "Gymnop┬┐dies" and the "Ode to Joy" tune from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

"You'd be surprised what you can do with 'Jingle Bells,' " Montero said with a big grin as she launched into her rendition. It started out sounding like something from the French baroque -- Rameau or Couperin, perhaps -- then moved on to quasi-Mozart before breaking into a Mendelssohn-like scherzo. The mood changed abruptly when Montero launched into a habanera rhythm and then finally landed on some Scott Joplin-style ragtime. Ho ho ho, indeed!

Most of the musical gestures, taken moment by moment, were familiar, but the compote that she made from them was distinctly personal. Other pianists have presented similar offerings (John Bayless used to rewrite the Beatles in the manner of classical composers). Montero brought wit and charm to her improvisations, however, and the delighted audience would have let her play all afternoon.

The program began with Ferruccio Busoni's piano transcription of J.S. Bach's monumental Chaconne in D Minor for unaccompanied violin. This is much more Busoni than Bach -- a massive workout for the pianist, both physically and intellectually, in high romantic style. Montero's performance was seamlessly integrated and made me hope that she will do more with this unfairly neglected composer.

Chopin's Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, seemed something of an overmatch. Montero has the power to get through this dark and crushingly difficult score -- no small accomplishment in itself -- but one always sensed that she was working very hard and didn't really have the first two movements in her fingers. There was one moment of brilliance, however, as she moved directly from the third movement "Funeral March" into the defiantly weird finale, which has rarely sounded so strange, wraithlike and absolutely appropriate.

There are some pretty good reasons that we don't hear Schumann's Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 11, more often, for much of the score is rambling, overwritten and stentorian. That said, Montero offered a noble and expansive performance, and almost managed to keep one's attention through the interminable last movement. Almost.

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