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Pianist Montero oozes class

By Vejay Steede Classical Pianist Gabriela Montero made her Bermuda Festival debut with a City Hall performance that oozed class and virtuosity. For roughly two hours Ms. Montero serenaded the capacity crowd with technically sharp, witty, and passionate classical piano music. She opened with a program of established piano standards, and closed with a delightful offering of world class improvisations, with a generous splashing of flair and showmanship throughout. Sunday afternoon’s journey began with Johannes Brahms’ ‘Three Intermezzos.’ These pieces were delivered with considerable skill, placing each melancholy chord, each plaintive melody, and each serene lyric exactly where Brahms must have intended. There were lullabies in these pieces; the tranquil lope of flat keys and Sunday afternoon siestas. My eyelids actually got heavy once or twice, so relaxing was her piano’s prose. This was simply stunning piano chamber music, the kind of music intended to relieve stress and enrich relaxation. Ms. Montero’s next offering was a stirring rendition of Franz Liszt’s ‘Sonata in B Minor.’ This piece found Ms. Montero hurling her fingers across the keys with reckless precision and furious agility. The Sonata itself ranged from guttural to orchestral, and Ms. Montero delivered it as if she were present when Liszt was composing it, perhaps advising him along the way. This was another technically brilliant performance; mesmerising in spots, charming in others, and impressive throughout. After the intermission, Ms. Montero spoke to the audience about her renowned gift of improvisation. She instructed us to come up with a few popular songs or compositions for her to riff on and create a piece of completely original, never-before-heard, never-to-be-repeated music. What followed was a feast of musical moments that never existed before Sunday, and will never be experienced again. Those in attendance on Sunday afternoon were truly lucky to have experienced Gabriela Montero’s gift, and Ms. Montero herself appeared to revel in the challenges presented by the audience at her first ever Bermuda Festival performance. The first audience ‘challenge’ came in the form of an unidentified, yet familiar, Venezuelan themed piece. The improvisation was fresh and airy, with swathes of Latin heat interspersed throughout; a very nice opening to a very unique segment of this show. Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ was the next audience request. Ms. Montero took this already playful piece of Americana and composed a masterpiece of classical sensitivity and frolicking melody. She was imperious during this piece, implying a deep familiarity with the beloved jazz standard. The meandering refrain of ‘Rhapsody’ danced, dipped, and darted all through Ms. Montero’s classical treatment, creating an awesome moment of musical bliss. Next up was the seventies power ballad ‘All By Myself.’ This piece was given a more sombre treatment by Ms. Montero, evoking heartbreak and melancholy at every turn, just as the base material intended. Lilting love sprang from every chord of this wistful improvisation, giving comfort to the lovelorn, and hope to the hopelessly romantic. The children were included next, which provided enchanting renditions of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman.’ The former was given the Mozart treatment, while the latter was transformed into a dazzling piece of postmodern classical piano magic. Both of these instantly recognisable children’s melodies were stretched to their musical limits in Ms. Montero’s hands, giving them the kind of gravitas and sensibility that music lovers of any age could appreciate. The final audience ‘challenge’ was perhaps the most difficult. A young lady in the audience was selected by Ms. Montero and suggested the international smash hit ‘Rolling in the Deep’ by Adele. Ms. Montero was not too familiar with the song so someone else played it from their phone; Ms. Montero took it from there. The evening’s final improvisation was not its best, but it did reveal a musical fearlessness rare in live musicians. This was true improvisation; a classical pianist riffing on a piece of music she was not familiar with at all. The result was adequate, but the Adele song was not as recognisable in the treatment as fans of the singer would have liked. The effort, however, was admirable, and the audience was therefore very appreciative. In the end, this was a command performance by a world class musician, and it was appropriately rewarded with a standing ovation. Ms. Montero was gracious and charming throughout the show, and by the end of the afternoon, her first Bermuda Festival audience had fallen quite hopelessly in love with her. Let’s hope Sunday’s audience won’t be her last Bermuda audience.