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Classic FM speaks Gabriela Montero, the pianist who is tearing up the classical rule book.
Classic FM is rather excited about meeting Gabriela Montero. The vivacious 35-year-old Venezuelan, one of the genius pianists of her generation, had just brought the house down at the Classic FM live concert at the Royal Albert Hall the night before. It’s not just that she’s good – what sets her apart is her ability to improvise. Last night, she’d asked a member of the orchestra to give her a tune. The cheeky clarinettist played her the theme to TV’s Emmerdale. Gabriela hadn’t heard it before, but improvised an inspired, jazzy riff on it for the next 10 minutes.
It’s not just jazz – it can be anything. “If I’ve, say, listened to a CD of African music, 20 minutes later I can improvise in that style.”
How does she do it?
“I don’t think about it. I suppose it is composing, but I have little knowledge of theory – it just happens. Some people have labelled it a spiritual experience, but I think of it more as an open channel. I’m not sure where the music comes from, or what it is, but I’ve learnt not to question it too closely.”
Gabriela is delightfully down-to-earth, irreverent about her talent and rather stop-start career, and warm about her children, Natalya and Isabella, who are living with their grandmother in Venezuela.
But let’s go back to the beginning: for Gabriela, the talent really was there from the start.
“I was born in May 1970. That Christmas, my grandma insisted that I was given a two-octave keyboard. It seemed crazy to my parents – I was only just learning how to sit – but they soon noticed that rather than bashing the keyboard I was playing with one finger, carefully. I was a difficult baby, and my mother used to sing to me each night to get me to sleep. She then realised I was picking out the lullabies on the keyboard.”
This, incredibly, was when Gabriela was just seven months old.
“Nobody believed her, though my mother has tapes of me playing. I was shy, and I wouldn’t play for strangers. But by one and a half, I could play a lot of tunes.
“Then, on my third birthday, my grandma gave me my first proper piano, and everyone came to my party.”
Gabriela’s parents asked her to play, and she gave a concert of all the tunes she knew; then she started to improvise.
“Of course, everyone was completely shocked, and my parents’ reputation was saved – no one thought they were mad or making up stories any more!”
At four, it was time for a piano teacher and, like much in Gabriela’s life, things just fell into place – or rather, as she puts it, “the music found me.” The family had just moved to a new flat: by chance, probably the best piano teacher in Venezuela at the time, Lyl Tiempo, lived upstairs. She had a long waiting list but when she heard Gabriela play she took her on immediately.
At five, Gabriela gave her first public performance. “I can’t remember the concert, but I was never nervous about playing. It’s always been fun to me.” Tiempo was a great influence – she nurtured Gabriela’s true genius. “At the end of every lesson she would say, ‘What have you got for me, Gabrielita? Improvise something for me.’”
When Gabriela was eight, her family moved to Miami. Her teacher there, whom she doesn’t name, almost ruined her awesome talent. Despite being fêted as a prodigy, playing countless concerts in the US and Europe, she began to detest her music. “I resented my talent. I knew my path in life was marked out by it. But I didn’t like being defined by it, I didn’t enjoy it.”
By 18 she’d had enough, and stopped playing the piano completely. “I did other things – I got married [to a bartender from Colombia].” Gabriela’s ability haunted her, though, and, aged 20, she and her husband moved to London where she took up a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. “There, I studied with Hamish Milne. He helped me find the music again.” She admits she was the pet of the RAM, always wheeled out for masterclasses.
But Gabriela still felt uncomfortable. “Having this kind of gift is a curse and a blessing. The talent gobbles you up.”
She ran away from it more than once, and has moved 37 times, often following her heart rather than her career. As for her love life, Gabriela’s first husband found living in London difficult – the marriage lasted four years. But in 1995, she won third place in the Chopin International Piano Competition, and fell in love again. She moved to Miami with her new husband, where they had Natalya.
“It was a time of great joy, but a struggle too. I wasn’t performing seriously then – my life has never been about my career; music has just been an expression of me.”
It was her improvisational talent that brought her to the attention of one of the greats of the piano, Martha Argerich, who is now a friend and mentor.
“I’d met her many times, but I’d never played for her. At that point, I was stuck: I didn’t know how to be both a performer and a mother. I hadn’t played for two months. Martha has three girls, and really I just wanted to talk to her.” They arranged to meet. “I improvised to her, on her personality – and she went crazy! She then made some calls, and things started to happen. You know, if someone like Martha believes in you, it helps you to believe in yourself.”
Gabriela soon landed a record deal with EMI, and released a debut CD, to rave reviews. But it’s not her new-found fame that excites Gabriela.
“I’m focused and passionate, not about being famous but about getting my message across: music is the most intimate language, and however different people are, we all share emotions, and music encapsulates that. I want to speak through my piano to reconnect people to their experiences.
“Classical music isn’t a dead 300-year-old thing. It still speaks to us. I want to see it being the music of today. It shouldn’t be so intellectual and detached – those composers were human beings! But it’s also the artist’s responsibility to make that connection. So long as it’s high quality, it doesn’t matter how you draw that audience in.”
I finally ask her about the new CD she is recording.
“Yes, it’s the first time anything’s been done like this. It’s improvisation on Bach themes, and it’s fantastic, as I don’t have to practise – we just see what happens. Having said that, I’ve never really practised.”
Ah, Gabriela, what a lucky pianist you are!