Ginastera fares best in a mixed, gimmicky Chicago debut for pianist Montero

Sat Feb 05, 2011 at 3:46 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Pianist Gabriela Montero made her Chicago debut Friday night at the Harris Theater.

Yes, Virginia, there is other musical life in Chicago after an unusual week that included a massive blizzard and Riccardo Muti’s collapse and resulting injuries, which means at least two missed weeks from his winter residency.

Given the clogged roads and Arctic weather, a surprisingly large crowd turned out Friday night to hear the Chicago debut of Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero at the Harris Theater.

Her renditions of two Chopin ballades — No. 1 in g minor, Op. 23 and No. 4 in f minor, Op. 52 — featured ferocious dynamic contrast and flashy, self-assured pianism that at times suggested Liszt more than Chopin, but there was no denying that these were exciting, if hardly nuanced, performances.

By contrast, Montero’s traversal of some of Cuban crossover composer Ernesto Lecuona’s popular piano works — including his ever-famous Malagueña — were surprisingly finessed, wonderfully bringing out the color and character of this music.

But it was with music of the Argentinine composer, Alberto Ginastera, that Montero really shone.  One movement from his Suite de danzas criollas served as a tantalizing early program appetizer but it was Montero’s eloquent traversal of his First Piano Sonata in the second half of the program that was the most rewarding portion of the program.

Although the 1952 piece was written before the Neo-Expressionism that would mark Ginastera’s later music, Montero’s sweeping performance reminded us that this piece is an important harbinger of what was to come as well as a culmination of Ginastera’s contrasted “objective” and “subjective” Nationalist styles.

Much of the publicity hoopla concerning Montero’s appearance hyped her ability to improvise on themes suggested by audience members. In fact, that part of the program — which took up the lion’s share of its second half — was overall a disappointment.

When one diehard audience member cried out Bear Down, Chicago Bears, Montero was befuddled and asked the gentleman to sing it for her; eventually half the theater did so in unison when she apparently could not hear him. “You must have all been out drinking really late last night,” she said as she proceeded to take the first four notes of the piece and superimpose some Bach Goldberg Variations-like noodling over it.

One gentleman suggested a song by Venezuelan folk singer-songwriter Simón Díaz, which Montero took a small portion of and spun out into a generically Romanticized adaptation while Venezuelan flags could be seen waving amongst a handful of audience members.

Sensing that most of the audience did not even know the song, Montero encouraged, “Something Chicago,” but even the most populist suggestions sung to her by game audience members—Sweet Home, Chicago, My Kind of Town and Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)— hopelessly stumped her. Montero responded to the examples with quips like, “Is that a real song?”

She settled on the opening notes of Billy Joel’s Piano Man, which she occasionally folded into a Chopin-meets-Piazzolla paraphrase before taking on the Beatles’ Yesterday in a New Agey take that morphed into Liszt.

The most fruitful improvisation of the evening was taking a couple of notes from All That Jazz and combining them with a whole tone scale—both suggested by audience members— with Impressionism colliding with Joplin-esque ragtime.

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