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Interview with Gabriela Montero

Classical Music as Moral Imperative

Gabriela Montero is in Geneva where she gave on Sunday 28th of October a concert for two NGOs, One Action and Karuna-Shechen.
The great Venezuelan pianist known for her mastery of improvisations has found time to speak to ConcertoNet.

A. Lévy-Leboyer (in the background, G. Montero)
(© Antoine Lévy-Leboyer)

Can you describe the current situation in Venezuela?
There is a lot more of information about Venezuela in the last years. The silence has been broken although there is still a lot of misinformation about our situation. Until recently, it was frustrating to see the silence and apathy and absolute lack of concern of the international community as to what was happening in Venezuela. This is why I have been speaking so loudly to tell the story in the press for last almost eight years.
Venezuela has basically collapsed. It is a country with unbelievable resources and potential. We had a bright future and all the economic means and talents to develop and to thrive. However, we are in the grip of a narco-mafia dictatorship, so there is no law. Basic human rights are violated every day in every possible way. We are in a real crisis. This is not about politics, this is about human life, about violence, corruption and about a country who has been taken into an abyss. Imagine if in your country, 28,000 people would be killed because of violence and 97% of crimes would not even be investigated. Everything is corrupted, and it is a small group of people in the government who are responsible for sacking the whole country.
The people are suffering. They are living in an endless poverty. They are eating garbage every day. 80% of the Venezuelans cannot have two meals per day. As a classical pianist, I see this not as a political situation but as a humanitarian crisis.

This has not started with Maduro, many of the issues were present under Chávez. There are however well-known politicians in Europe who are still referring to Chávez as a model.
It is criminal they do. This is what happens when you have a charismatic person as Chávez with unlimited resources to create a myth, to buy into a whole propaganda machinery which created a story that was not true.
You must do nothing else than look at the evidence to realise that was Chávez promised has not been delivered. This was unfortunately his doing and Maduro has just taken on his project.

What does it mean for an artist, or NFL players in the US, to express openly political positions? Why do some speak, and some don’t?
It is very much convenient to not speak about matters that could provoke, create enemies and arise criticism. It is so much more convenient to remain in your bubble as an artist, a musician or whatever you do in life and not allow yourself to be touched by these dark and disturbing situations around the world.
For me, there was really no choice. It is a moral choice. I cannot simply stop and play Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin... say that I am speaking for the best of humanity and at the same time not be involved with humanity. For me it is a completely ethical stance which was always clear about caring for the people.

Will you ever go back to your country?
I hope one day I will. It has been seven years since I did. I really hope the time comes when I can return.

Is it importance as an artist to have a “story”, a voice, a conscience?
For sure, it has been of no benefit for my career. Again, it is so much more advantageous to do the concert and not speak about something that can be polemic like violence, corruption and devastation in your country. People do not want to hear about, but we need to speak about violence in this world.
On the other hand, the situation I have lived through, my family, my friends, my fans who write to me their stories which are all tragic, of course, it shapes the way I play and what I need to say. When I approach a Chopin Mazurka or anything else, when I compose, I am carrying these things with me. They are pretty heavy and difficult. I cannot differentiate who I am as a human being as a communicator and as an artist.

Your Opus 1, Ex Patria, starts in a very modern way, more than many of your improvisations. How did you write this piece?
I wrote specifically This piece to find a musical language way to describe and to help the public experience what Venezuelans are living.
It is an experiential and metaphorical piece. I wanted to people to sit and listen to this piece and feel crushed, get away from their comfortable seats and home, their safe lives. I wanted them to live like a Venezuelan who is every day under constant threat and constant violence and has lost everything.
This piece really achieves that. It starts with a jolt. The first chord is meant as sort of attack to wake up people from their comfortableness and apathy. The piece becomes quite brutal. There is a section where you can hear gun fire in the way the piano is written. It is very percussive and very fast. The middle section is more lyrical. It is a cry of people having lost their home. It concludes by basically collapsing. It goes down in a precipice. The last note of Ex Patria is a gunshot, this is how it ends.

You have worked on Ex Patria with Carlos Miguel Prieto. I understand you also worked on a project with the Ravel Piano Concerto and another of your pieces?
My Latin Concerto, yes, it is a 30 minutes 3 movement work. It was written five years later. The concerto is modern but also tonal. It is very rhythmical, difficult and complex. The first movement is a mambo, the second is influenced by Argentina and tango, the last is an Allegro Venezuelano. It is meant to be celebration of all the wonderfully diversity and colours we have as Latin American but always with some darkness lurking underneath it. There is all this joy but underneath, you feel that something is about to take this away. It is a very fun piece and it is great for the pianist.

Is it correct to say that you have a “big tone” with strong fortissimos. Is it important for your style?
Actually, my palette is developing on the extremes and particularly for the pianissimos. I have always been conscious of my “fortississimos”. I love being enveloped by their sounds. For me, a fortissimo is not about sound but intension. It should sometimes shock you, overwhelm you, impassion you... It should sometimes hurt you. It is all about emotional intention.
As I get older, I am discovering the power of the “pianississimos”. So I have my toolbox of fortississimos and pianississimos and everything in between.

How difficult is keeping a long pianissimo line?
Keeping a pianissimo line depends on how you pedal, what you want to say, the mood you are creating. It should serve the purpose of the message.

You will give a charity concert tomorrow in Geneva. Can you tell us about the organisations you will play for?
These are two wonderful NGOs which work to improve the life of many. The first one is One Action and the other one is Karuna-Shechen. My eldest daughter spends six months teaching young people in India with them. These are organisations that need to be supported. They make a big difference to the community.
The ethos of the concert tomorrow is about creativity, humanity, giving joy, bringing something to them beyond financial help. These are people that work tirelessly to make schools and take care of community. It is a fantastic initiative that deserves many more concerts like that.

Gabriela Montero’s web site

[Interview with Antoine Lévy-Leboyer]



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