Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I was a 7 month old baby when I first came into contact with a piano. My mother, at the insistence of my grandmother, placed a 2 octave toy piano in my crib. To my parents’ surprise, I spent hours discovering its sounds, and within a few months I was playing the lullabies my mum sang to me on that little piano. I didn’t have a chance to be inspired! It was always there as a part of my nature.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
There are, of course, negative and positive influences. They both weigh heavily on the development of a person. My piano studies began with Lyl Tiempo (aged 4 to 8) in Caracas and it was the very best beginning I could have had. She was a wonderful teacher. But most of my childhood and adolescence was marred by a negative influence. I stopped playing for almost 3 years. Then, came the positive influences in my twenties. Discovering the great, historical recordings was pivotal to how I heard and imagined music. It gave me a sense of freedom I had never before been aware of. A sense that the possibilities of music extended far beyond the written score. I also had a wonderful teacher, Hamish Milne, at the Royal Academy of Music, whom I credit for rekindling my love for music. I was in my early twenties, and too young to profit from his wisdom and artistry, but it left a mark on me. I can’t fully answer this question without mentioning Martha Argerich. Martha, upon hearing me play Schumann, Beethoven and improvise, changed my life. From one moment to the next, she took me from barely playing and seriously considering studying psychology (dedicating my life to something useful!) to beginning these last 17, hectic, challenging but rewarding years of my life and career. I owe a lot to her. She has also been a huge inspiration as an artist and human being.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Being a single mother to two young daughters and at the same time juggling an intense concert career– without a shadow of a doubt! I am now happily married. My friends and colleagues ask me how I survived, and I really don’t know how I managed to perform well under the constant excruciating worry and pressure. Add to that the heart-breaking situation of my country, Venezuela, and my daily work of the last 8 years as a dissident and human rights advocate, and it has been anything but easy.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Any performance when I feel I am deeply connected and when I give the most honest and committed performance I can give, is one I am most proud of. It doesn’t matter where it is or how many people are sitting in the hall. I am very proud of my last recording (which is yet to released) of my own concerto – the Latin Concerto!! I had an amazing team to work with in Carlos Miguel Prieto and the YOA Orchestra of the Americas.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
That’s difficult to answer. Most people would describe me as a very big, impassioned and powerful player. I do think that is a very strong element of my musical nature, but at the same time, I am discovering the intimacy and subtleties in the way I play Mozart – which is opposite to how people have heard me perform the romantic repertoire. I am fond of extremes and contrasts, and in Mozart, I am finding a new relationship and sound to an instrument that has been most suited for me in the large and virtuosic pieces. I am a work in progress.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Until now, it has always been determined by what I want to play. But now, I am beginning to design programs around a common story, a personal narrative, relationships or connections between pieces. I’m becoming more interested in metaphors that connect people and works.
You’re performing with Carlos Miguel Prieto and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in March – tell us more about this?
I love Carlos Miguel. That’s the most important part of my answer! He is a dear friend, a respected colleague and someone who understands the kind of musical animal I am on the stage, and what my life is like, offstage. I am so looking forward to performing Ravel again with him (also included on our last recording) and to performing for the first time with the BSO. I can imagine it will be a wonderful combination.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I love the Wigmore Hall, the Teatro Colon, any hall in Italy, the Palau in Barcelona. There are many. I prefer smaller and more intimate halls. I think I play better when I am in a beautiful space, surrounded by beauty and inspired by the aesthetics of a hall.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Hmmm.. Martha Argerich, Martin Fröst, Alison Balsom, Bill Evans, Horowitz, Annie Fisher, Rachmaninov, Angela Hewitt… There are a few more. All of the people alive in this list are my friends, but I am not biased! They really are wonderful.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It’s hard to say. I recently performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Mirga [Gražinytė-Tyla] and the Berlin Komisch Oper Orchestra in Berlin, and as she lifted her arms to begin the concerto introduction, a couple in the audience interrupted her by singing the national anthem of Venezuela. I sat there heartbroken and stunned, fully aware of what a gesture of pain and courage that moment meant to that couple and I. I will never forget that. Playing at President Obama’s first inauguration was also incredibly meaningful. I felt it was the beginning of a deep and long awaited healing process for the US and its people, and I was very honoured and touched to be a part of it. You had to be there to understand what it felt like. Unfortunately, things have changed significantly since then, and not for the better. But there have been many moments that will forever remain etched in my memory.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
The older I get, the more I understand that for me, success is inexorably linked to how I contribute to society. I am no longer only a pianist and composer, I am also someone who is trying to rescue people from Venezuela, someone who tries to be a lifeline and a voice to many, and above all, a human being who suffers the pain of those around me. For me, success is not defined by fame and fortune, or playing with a renowned conductor or orchestra, or being on someone’s “favourite” list. It is reaching out to people and knowing I’ve made a difference. We have choices, and they speak volumes of who we are. Success is making the right ethical choice.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be inspired!! Live!! Love!! Give!! Enjoy! And then, take all those stories and paint them on the score, with the colours of sound. You can’t be a storyteller if you have no stories to tell.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In a free and democratic Venezuela. That’s my greatest wish. But sooner, I hope.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Helping someone. Knowing that my girls are well. Having a laugh with my husband. Composing. Mozart. Chocolate.
What is your most treasured possession?
My Hamburg Steinway D… and my Maltese [dog], Louie.
What is your present state of mind?
Expectation. I am now on a flight back home, and will soon be hugging my 15 year old daughter, Isabella. I haven’t seen her in two weeks and I can’t wait to get off this plane!!
Gabriela Montero performs with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Carlos Miguel Prieto on 7th (Poole), 8th (Portsmouth) and 10th (Brighton) March. Further information here
Born in Venezuela, Gabriela Montero gave her first public performance at the age of five. At age eight, she made her concerto debut in her hometown of Caracas, which led to a scholarship from the government to study privately in the USA. She continued her studies under Hamish Milne at the Royal Academy of Music in London, graduating with the highest honours. She currently resides in Barcelona, with her husband and two daughters.
(Artist photo: Shelley_Mosman)