Gabriela Montero’s New Recording: Rachmaninov and “Ex Patria”

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Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is reinvigorating an old tradition: She performs all of the standard repertoire, yet she’s equally dedicated to improvising and performing her own compositions. She infuses her concerts with a refreshing sense of excitement and spontaneity, frequently improvising on melodies volunteered by the audience. The subjects of her improvisations have run the gamut from the theme from Harry Potter  and “Happy Birthday” to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, improvisation and a blurring of the line between composer and performer were common. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt were all masters of improvisation. It was only in the twentieth century (with isolated exceptions like Sergei Rachmaninov) that a gulf grew between those who created and interpreted music.

In June, Gabriela Montero released a recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, as well as her own composition, Ex Patria, and three improvisations. On the CD, she’s joined by conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto  and the YOA Orchestra of the Americas, an orchestra made up of 18-30-year-old musicians from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Recently, Montero talked about the recording with Richmond Public Radio’s Mike Goldberg. You can hear her thoughtful and dramatic interpretation here:

Ex Patria grew out of the human rights struggle in Montero’s native Venezuela. In a recent interview, she described the piece this way:

Ex Patria I wrote in 2011 to honor the 19,336 victims of homicide that year in Venezuela. Now, to put it in perspective, that number — 19,336 — that was in 2011. Last year, there were 25,000 murders in Venezuela. So, Ex Patria was meant to be a vehicle to express all of this. I wanted people to feel what we feel as a society, a collapsed society. There is no law, there is no justice. Ninety-five percent of crimes go unresolved or unpunished. And I not only wanted to speak of numbers with my audiences but also to write a piece that would emotionally convey the message that they would be attached to. So when they left the concert hall or listened to the recording, it would be in them, it would be an experience that they could identify with. It’s very violent but also very beautiful. And it’s really a photograph of Venezuela in the last 16 years.

The three improvisations which round out this CD draw together elements from the preceding music. Montero describes the first improvisation as Baroque in nature, the second evokes Rachmaninov, and the third is an aural snapshot of Venezuela.

Ten Tips for Youth Orchestra Students

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the 2007 BBC Proms
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the 2007 BBC Proms

At its best, orchestra playing is a unique combination of artistry and technical craft. It’s a skill which develops over time. As musicians play together, they develop increasing sensitivity and cohesiveness. With the help of a visionary conductor, a disparate group of highly skilled individuals is forged into a team.

Whether you’re a member of a student ensemble or an amateur performing in a community orchestra, here are a few orchestra playing tips to consider:

  1. Know how your part fits. Preparation goes beyond learning the notes. Be sure to listen to recordings of the piece you’re playing. Understand how your part fits into the whole. Pay attention to sections where the tempo or dynamics change.
  2. Feel the rhythm. Practice with a metronome and pay attention to the subdivisions within larger beats. When playing in the orchestra, feel a sense of collective rhythm. Be careful not to rush, especially in difficult fast passages. Even when it’s fast, you often have more time than you think you have, so fill out every beat. Anchor on important beats. Organize and group notes in ways which allow them to flow naturally. Carefully place pizzicatos so they don’t speak early. For soft pizzicatos consider just touching the string with the tip of your finger and release. Don’t forget to breathe.
  3. Use multiple senses. Imagine how you want the music to sound as you see the notes on the page. Listen to what’s happening around you. If you’re a string player, use peripheral vision to keep track of the section leader’s bow, and other bows around you. Make sure you’re in the same part of the bow as the leader and try to match bow speed. And, of course, watch the conductor.
  4. Bring a pencil, eraser and mute. 
  5. Pay attention to balance. Many students would be surprised to hear how softly professional string players can play. A soft dynamic in orchestra repertoire is generally much softer than the same dynamic in solo repertoire. It also requires a different tone color. If someone else in the orchestra has a solo line (usually in the woodwinds or brass), get out of the way and make sure the soloist doesn’t have to force to be heard.
  6. Play for the team. Always be mindful that you’re part of a collective sound. Never try to stick out. Listen to the players around you and blend in terms of sound and intonation.
  7. “Music Police” kill the music. If you hear a mistake, don’t point it out to your colleague. They probably also heard it and will try their best to not repeat it. “Music police” can create a debilitating and backstabbing atmosphere which kills real music making. Never react to a mistake, especially in a performance. Just stay in the “zone” of the piece.
  8. Be ready when the conductor is ready. It’s okay to drop out to mark an occasional bowing change, but never make the conductor wait for you. Use direct eye contact with conductors whenever possible.
  9. Where you sit isn’t important. Every part is essential. If you’re playing second violin, you often have rich inner voices and supporting lines which need to be brought out. Because it’s harder to hear, the people in the back of a section have the hardest job in terms of precision.
  10. Enjoy the sound around you. 

“Mam-bo!”

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela gave a memorable performance of the Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the 2007 BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert HallYou can hear them play the full Symphonic Dances from West Side Story here.

The Mambo has transcended West Side Story to become a cultural icon. It’s almost like a twentieth century Ode to Joy.