Montero turns SummerFest into Gabriela's place

Gabriela Montero
San Diego Union-Tribune

By James Chute

There aren’t many classical pianists who could get an audience to sing “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” and then improvise a set of variations on the theme by Sammy Fain made famous in the 1955 film. But Gabriela Montero turned Sherwood Auditorium into her own high-class piano bar Wednesday in a stimulating SummerFest program of works by Granados, Grainger and Ginastera in addition to Montero’s improvisations on themes submitted by members of the audience.

Montero has an easy, effortless way of playing the piano, no matter how demanding the music. And this program had an extremely high level of technical and musical difficulty, from the thorny, complex Ginastera Sonata No. 1 to Grainger’s four-handed tour-de-force, the Fantasy on Geroge Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” for two pianos.

Through it all, Montero showed a flawless, remarkably fluid technique devoid of any hystrionics but filled with life. The notes were easily dispensed with and it was on to the music, which offered one surprise after another.

Montero found congenial company in violinists Margaret Batjer and Cho-Liang Lin, violist Cynthia Phelps and cellist Desmond Hoebig in Granados’ Piano Quintet in G Minor that opened the program. This bright, quirky piece, written in 1894 with its roots deep in Spain, was a revelation.; It seemed to look backwards and forwards at the same time, bridging two musical eras as well as two cultures.

Batjer and Phelps delighted in the frequent exchanges between violin and viola in the second and third movements while Lin and Hoebig provided reliable support. Montero, despite being all over the keyboard, never drew attention to herself. And even with the frequent changes in mood and tempo, the ensemble was seamless.

In Grainger’s “Porgy and Bess” fantasy, Montero found a soul mate in the irrepressible Christopher O’Riley. In this 1951 gem, Grainger uses every device the piano has to offer: Glissandos, countless octaves, rapid passage work, pulsating rhythms and counter rhythms and lush chords that would have made a cocktail pianist blush. And then there’s those matchless Gershwin tunes. O’Riley was like a kid in a candy shop, or was it Montero? Without looking, it was impossible to tell who was doing what, except they were both having a blast.

Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1, written just a year later, in 1952, starts with some of the same rhetorical devices in its brilliant opening, but where Grainger was going for sheer entertainment, Ginastera points straight toward the future. But Montero didn’t treat it is as modern music, just music, Ginastera’s tonal and rhythmic complexity not withstanding. She played the sonata with the ease of a folk song and pretty soon, the music’s dissonance faded and its fiery rhythms, vivid colors and haunting melodies proved irresistible.

As for the improvisations, the audience suggestions ranged from Tchaikovsky to Mexican folk tunes. Since she wasn’t familiar with “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” when it was requested, she had the audience sing it. Nobody seemed to mind.