Pianist and composer Gabriela Montero interviewed by Gregor Tassie
Gabriela Montero’s brilliant music-making and her dazzling freeform arrangements of classical piano works have placed her among the most fascinating musicians in the world today. Her compositions reflect upon the stormy events of recent years in her homeland and her defence of human rights across the globe. Gabriela Montero is the first appointed Amnesty International Honorary Consul for Human Rights. Several of her compositions have won wide-spread praise together with her recordings including her Grammy award for her Ex Patria poem for piano and orchestra. In February 2019 she tours the United Kingdom for a series of concerts from Scotland through to London in which she will play the premiere of her new piece Babel with the award-winning Scottish Ensemble.
GT: What inspired you to become a musician?
GB: Music was there from the very beginning; I started to play when I was only eight months old after my mother gave me a toy piano in my crib for my very first Christmas so I tried to play all these melodies and my mom would sing to me at night, and by the time that I was a year and a half I could play so many songs.
GT: You studied in Venezuela with Lyla Tiempo and with José Antonio Abreu founder of El Sistema, and later in the United States and in London. Who was your most influential teacher?
GB: I never studied with Abreu, that is a misconception. I studied with Lyla Tiempo from the age of four until I was eight, then I was left without a teacher when she moved to Europe; after which my parents decided it would be best for me to go to the United States. However, my teacher [there] was not the right for me, so then I started studying with Hamish Milne at [the Royal Academy of Music] in London. Finally to have a great artist and a great example was a wonderful inspiration for me, but throughout my career I have stopped [playing] so many times! I went through my young life without a role model until I studied with Hamish which opened up the possibilities of being a performer not just as a musician, [introducing] art and beauty and [understanding] the more profound questions in life.
GT: There are so many outstanding pianists today, and it is increasingly difficult to make a career, how did you manage to become such a successful musician?
GB: It is so difficult and there is no easy formula to become a pianist. I think that first and foremost there has to be the talent, the ability to express oneself, and firstly, you have to adopt a lifestyle which doesn’t suit everyone, there are a lot of sacrifices, for your family and of course you are almost married to your instrument to some degree. I don’t know how I ended up [where I am now] because I have had a lot of ups and downs in my professional life when I stopped playing and [then] returned. Inevitably I couldn’t do everything, but I never had a plan, I don’t know but it seems that just everything fell into place from the need to express myself, it wasn’t about becoming famous or successful, it was about telling stories through my playing.
GT: Was your life and studies in London an important element in your development?
GB: Of course the advantages of coming to a place like London were in providing an environment that I never had before, and it was a wonderful backdrop to my life. At the age of 20 to be in London was a secondary education for me, well I couldn’t see and do everything, but just to be there was a great inspiration. The world opened up for me at this moment.
GT: What was your breakthrough as a professional musician?
GB: Well, a lot of people ask me that, when [I won] the third place [at the Chopin competition in 1996], it was significant for me because I was at a moment when I was ready to quit playing yet going through the rigours of the competition – throwing myself into it, learning the repertoire and winning the prize – it was quite wonderful and the greatest experience in my career because I wasn’t part of a network or had any fan base. I had the experience of being on radio and TV when I was a little girl, but the pressure of the Chopin competition and having to focus on music-making was a wonderful experience so the value of having to go through was not so much for the exposure and recognition, but what I went through personally during the whole process.
GT: You have collaborated with many great musicians all over the world, is there a special conductor or musician that you value above all others?
GB: Well, of course I always refer to Martha Argerich because she has been a wonderful inspiration in my life. She took me under her wing when I was 31-years-old and when I had again stopped playing and [when she] heard me, she began to tell the music world about my playing and somehow this removed my doubts. Thanks to her motivation, I began to start improvising because I had not really improvised in public for many years and she really gave me that impetus to share this with the world, so she has been a very important person in my life, and incredibly kind and wonderful with me.
GT: What made you become a composer?
GB: I will not stop playing because I have a lot to say, through my composing I tell of my own experience, I write about the issues that are important to me, and of course about Venezuela, and what we have been living with for 20 years – it is about bringing people to the concert platform and about my stories as well. It’s very much a tool and not just about the playing; it’s about something else. Composing is a very personal process for me: all I want is to create and to bring the audience understanding through music. This way there is emphasis on the word. I mentioned that this may penetrate to the depths, in a narrative, in solving a problem; it’s all about the metaphor, about life and life experiences.
GT: Do you belong to a particular school of music?
GB: No, I am not from a particular school of music, I am from different schools, I am very much self-taught in many ways I have always been someone who very much questions the reasons why I play and what I want to create for the piano. No, I don’t think that I belong to a particular school. I am a mixed breed [she laughs].
GT: Do you like to teach?
GB: I don’t teach regularly, but I give masterclasses sometimes when I am travelling, at conservatories as a part of the concert programme. I love it. I actually love it, I engage with the sight of myself [teaching], I just want to give, I want to shake the students up and inspire them. To make them ask questions of themselves, I love it and wish that I could do more.
GT: What would be your advice be to a young child who wants to be a professional musician?
GB: I talk to friends and colleagues about this, it’s a real dilemma. So when I give a masterclass in a conservatory and see all these young faces who want to have a life in music, you know in reality only a small percentage of them will be able to do it. My feeling is that if there is anything else that you want to do like maths or science – do it – but to play is not just about the music-making – it’s life itself. But if you must be a musician and it’s the only thing that fulfils you – the greatest advice is to look for inspiration, to look for great role models as well, and not see it as a career or vocation and never lose track of why you want to be a musician and what it really means. It’s a big trap to follow fame and fortune, it’s really not like that nowadays; it’s a very difficult world, and a very small world in a way.
GT: What special moments do you have as a musician?
GB: I have many wonderful moments from my musical scrapbook; memories of favourite people, and favourite colleagues. I must say that the most touching part of being an artist is the incredibly close connection that I have with Venezuela, and the people who come to my concerts with the Venezuelan flag. I just feel that I am speaking directly to them and speaking about them to the public and this relationship has developed through so much pain and suffering in the last few years. I carry these people inside me everywhere as they are there to support me, it’s something which is intangible and has become possibly the most touching part of what I do and what I am as an artist.
GT: You are giving the premiere of your new piece Babel on your UK tour; can you tell me about it?
GB: Babel is really [important in that] I want to tell my audience the experience of someone who has for years been a very tranquil dissident and has used every platform possible – and especially on the concert stage – to tell the story of Venezuela and to break down the silence of the classical music concert. Even in the classical world, musicians are not as vocal as others in the arts, such as the visual arts. I wanted to write and to reflect on the joys and the frustration behind the absurdity of trying to speak in a world that doesn’t want to listen; to cut through the noise and through the silence has been a challenge. I will never regret doing it and I have resisted the people who say, just shut up and play. I won’t accept that, I won’t reduce myself to that. Babel is coming after my Ex Patria and it is all about doing something about my country, in the best way possible. It’s really about these ten years and about what I have been through and I want the audience to experience that in a piece of music.
GT: How do you see the current events in Venezuela?
GM: I always speak about Venezuela as much as I can and I want the audience to know this is a very critical time for Venezuela after 20 years of misery, of being kidnapped by a narco state, and how after unfortunately suffering 20 years of mafia government, we have never been so poor, or in such a devastated situation. I want the audience to read about Venezuela, to know it, now there is a chance for opposition to Chavismo and we can change things.
GT: Thank you very much and we are all looking forward to hearing you on your new tour.
For a review of Gabriela Montero’s Babel click here.
For details of forthcoming concerts on the Scottish Ensemble’s UK tour click here.