La Scena Musicale

Monday, 6 June 2011

Gabriela Montero: The Piano is her Playground


By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero described the piano as her playground on stage at Roy Thomson Hall June 1.

That proved to be a bit of an understatement as she went on to play two brilliant encores à la Gabriela Montero.

First, it was Gershwin’s famous Summertime, as requested by a member of the audience, in Bach-like style.

Second, it was the theme from Hockey Night in Canada dressed in Latin fever. Montero insisted on improvising something Canadian — Torontonian to be precise — even though she had never heard of the melody until Paul Meyer, principal second violinist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, played it out for her after another audience member requested it on the spot.

Yes, these were encores for Montero’s debut performance with the TSO in which she performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. While she was effortless in Rhapsody — in fact she’s an unruffled, graceful pianist with killer tones — it takes more than a superlative soloist to pull off this ensemble piece and unfortunately pianist and orchestra were poorly coordinated in this, the finale of a thoughtfully matched but unusual program of Rachmaninoff and the Impressionists.

Hence the delightful encores were more than a treat. They were the long-awaited lemony sunshine following a largely subdued concert by nature of the music.

TSO music director Peter Oundjian started off the night with Rachmaninoff’s rarely performed The Isle of the Dead. This was one of the best performances I’ve heard this orchestra deliver this season. Not a single note was off. Every detail was nuanced with just the right amount of anticipation, freedom and embroidery.

Then came Debussy’s Premiere rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra. Featuring TSO principal clarinettist Joaquin Valdepenas as soloist, this delicately dreamy piece of work was in good hands. The natural chemistry between Valdepenas, Oundjian and the orchestra was advantageous in terms of unity, but what lacked in this particular performance were a sense of adventure and elements of surprise.

French composer Paul Dukas’ best-known work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, felt like a write-off and out of context. Despite a decent and easy reading of the score by the orchestra, the light-hearted mood and the stop-and-go temper of the music added little to the previous works and even less so as a conversation piece during intermission.

Oundjian’s rationale for programming this piece, as explained in the program note, is that Dukas was very much influenced by Debussy and Dukas passed on his orchestral expertise to his student, Olivier Messiaen.

So, the second half of the concert opened with none other but Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliees. Thankfully, the TSO returned to its top form and delivered a striking imagery of sadness, madness and deadness. When it was all over, it was as if a life was just beginning.

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