Music Review: Master improviser Gabriela Montero, playing it by ear at the Nashville Symphony

Music Improvising PianistMusic director Giancarlo Guerrero is away this weekend, but he’s left the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the capable hands of two extraordinary musicians.

Gilbert Varga, a suave, sophisticated British-born conductor, was on the podium Thursday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, leading the NSO in such sure-fire crowd-pleasers as Mendelssohn’s Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird and Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. Gabriela Montero, meanwhile, soloed in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.

Montero was last at the Schermerhorn a couple of years ago, when she played the Grieg Piano Concerto with the visiting Cleveland Orchestra. If you missed that performance, you owe it to yourself to catch one of this weekend’s repeat concerts. The Venezuelan-born Montero is a singular phenomenon in the classical music world, a virtuoso who’s both a master interpreter of the standard repertoire and a fantastic improviser. She showcased both gifts on Thursday.

I confess that her interpretation of the Schumann Piano Concerto was not always to my taste. Schumann’s music is warm, lyrical and dramatic, but it’s not overtly showy. All the same, Montero blazed through the opening movement as if she were playing Liszt. She played fast passages with so much force and speed that details were often lost in a sonic blur. She went to the opposite extreme in lyrical sections, meandering over music that’s best played sweetly and succinctly. Schumann was one of history’s best-known manic-depressives, and it seemed at times that Montero was trying too hard to suggest the extremes of the composer’s personality.

Perhaps Montero got the adrenaline out of her system after the first movement, because the rest of her performance was fully satisfying. She played the second-movement Intermezzo with delicacy and expression, and she brought out all of the exuberance and joy of the dashing finale.  Varga and the NSO, for their parts, provided sensitive accompaniment.

After the concerto, Montero picked up a microphone and asked the audience to suggest a theme for her to improvise. Thursday’s crowd picked “The Tennessee Waltz,” and Montero’s improvisation of the tune was amazing. Indeed, she transformed this simple theme, turning it into a complex solo that sounded as lush, romantic and virtuosic as anything by Rachmaninoff.

varga1Varga is well known as an orchestral colorist, and so the rest of the program was ideally suited to his talents. He opened with a rendition of Mendelssohn’s Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream that glistened and sparkled – the soft, scurrying strings in the opening had an ethereal quality that was magical.

The NSO performed the abridged 1919 orchestral version of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, but Varga didn’t let us forget this score had originally been ballet music.  Varga engaged in his own ostentatious podium choreography during the opening “Dance of the Firebird” – he seemed to be showing the musicians exactly how the music should feel. He conducted the “Infernal Dance of King Katschei” with ferocity and menace, and his reading of the finale shimmered with an incandescent glow.

The concert ended with four of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. After listening to the Schumann Piano Concerto and The Firebird, Dvorak’s short, familiar dances seemed more like encores than a regular part of the program. They were the creamy dessert following a robust meal. Varga, I’m happy to report, was a convincing pastry chef, dishing out these delicacies with warmth, energy and unadulterated joy.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony under the direction of guest conductor Gilbert Varga performs Mendelssohn’s Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird, Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and Schumann’s Piano Concerto (with Gabriela Montero). Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8 and Saturday, Nov. 9 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $23 to $138. Call 687-6400 or click here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.