Gabriela Montero Premieres her New Work Babel with the Scottish Ensemble in Glasgow

11/02/2019

Glass, Messiaen, Montero, Shostakovich and Vasks: Gabriela Montero (piano), Scottish Ensemble / Jonathan Morton (leader), New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 8.2.2019. (GT)

Gabriela Montero

Shostakovich – Chamber Symphony Op.118a (arr. Barshai)
Philip GlassEchorus (1995)
Vasks Viatore (2002)
Montero Babel (2018)
MessiaenQuartet for the End of Time: VIII Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus

This was the first concert in a UK wide tour by pianist Gabriela Montero and the Scottish Ensemble programming works by composers who had a common theme of combatting repression during their lifetimes. The Scottish Ensemble has been one of the most gifted groups of string musicians for many years and their programmes consistently attract interest by opening up fresh ideas for music both new and old. This was their second collaboration with the Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, and she gave a brief statement at the beginning – together with leader Jonathan Morton – explaining her conception of this new work against the current difficult period in her homeland.

The music opened with Montero playing her arrangements during which the Scottish Ensemble joined her on stage and two high screens were theatrically moved to enclose the musicians when they started to play the improvisation with a wonderfully colourful harmony which slowly declined into dissonance. Almost immediately Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony opened with the fiercely dramatic chords superbly played by the violins, and particularly chilling on the viola and darkly threatening on the double bass, it seemed as if they loved playing this music! In the Allegretto furioso, one could hear themes from the composer’s more famous works, notably the cantata of The Execution of Stepan Razin, with the pulsating Dance Macabre from the first violins. In the Adagio, there was a desperately plaintive theme from the low strings, deeply profound in its reflective writing, and a duet between violin and cello leading to a weeping theme from the whole ensemble. In the final movement, Allegretto-Andante, it was if the music was slowly, but ever so slowly, dying before us, like a tick-tock of the clock.

For the Glass piece, the screens were moved to divide the leader and cellist from the musicians behind at the rear of the hall. The playing was beautiful with supreme playing from the two soloists at the front. This work seemed to be too brief and lacking substance to link with the previous Shostakovich work. In the next piece, Viator, Peteris Vasks attempts to write about the ‘theme of eternity’ creating a host of powerful feelings: tension, melancholy and anxiety, but awe, wonder and a sense of something larger than us all.’ For me the music was lacking any significant ideas or themes and was more akin to cinema music with ideas but without any direction or purpose.

For Gabriela Montero’s new piece Babel, the screens completely enclosed Montero at the keyboard with the ensemble playing at the front of the stage while images of Venezuela were projected on those screens. Regrettably most of what was being shown was not distinguishable at all, apart from the eyes of a little girl toward the end. If this is supposed to provide a background to the piece then they will have to ensure it is seen clearly. The playing was beautiful and whilst no great thematic ideas were present, the idiom created was almost dream-like, the continuous keyboard playing was well supported by the strings and slowly the music descended into a nothingness as if disappearing into a different world.

Montero writes about the piece: ‘Surmounting and rejecting that foundational misunderstanding, the piece begins with a solitary voice, joined only by thin string textures, talking largely in a vacuum. Statements beget counterattacking narratives, questions elicit competing questions. A confusion of arpeggios arises from the competing discourse. The discourse is at times playful, rhythmical and percussive, even collaborative. But the incoherence of babbling, competing forces is never far away, with the mocking absurdity of madness and incoherence a pervasive presence throughout the piece. Perhaps we are all to blame. Perhaps we are victims of our own success as the most interconnected generation in human history. Perhaps the democratized possibility to communicate at will has created the new Babel, a world of indecipherable noise and alternative truths which resists all attempts to prioritize truth and responsibility to our fellow man. Babel proposes an optimistic, unison denouement of mutual understanding and harmonic unity. Whether such an outcome is attainable, or simply my manifest wish to create a spirit of collaboration for the greater good of the misunderstood everywhere, is for the listener to decide.’

The evening closed with Montero and Morton playing the final, eighth movement from Messiaen’s great Quartet for the End of Time. Here the beautiful music was wholly in accordance with the spirit of the concert, magnificent playing by this duo of musicians who had so carefully worked out the concept of this concert and for the Babel tour of the UK.

Gregor Tassie

For more about Gabriela Montero click here.

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