Gabriela Montero: ‘I was never part of the Sistema’

The Times

October 25, 2012


For the pianist Gabriela Montero, Hugo Chávez’s recent re-election to a fourth term as president of Venezuela was the nightmare result. The musician, who played at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony and is famous for her improvisations that segue from a Justin Bieber tune, say, into a Bach fugue, is a passionate, eloquent campaigner for political change in her home country. She was hopeful that Chávez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles, would win. “Chávez’s victory means complete decay,” she says, adding that her denunciations of Chávez’s regime and the violence in Venezuela mean she won’t be able to return for “another six years at least”. She forecasts “a mass exodus, broken hearts, such depths of violence. There’s nowhere to go.”

Montero, 42, now lives in Boston, Massachusetts with her two daughters and her partner of two years, the baritone Sam McElroy. Last year she performed her first major work, ExPatria, a personal and political lament. In a statement that accompanied it she wrote: “The opening chord is intended to jolt the public from silence and apathy… the French horn and piano reflect a fleeting recollection of an innocent moment, an ominous calm. The theme is quickly brutalised, corrupted and stolen by an imposing, percussive and militaristic interruption . . . depicting the daily gunfire to which Venezuelans have grown accustomed.”

In a Boston coffee shop Montero, soon to play two concerts in London and Bath with the French cellist Gautier Capuçon, decries “the huge sums of money generated from oil” that profit only the rich and corrupt in Venezuela. “There were 20,000 murders last year, 150,000 over the past 14 years. It has a higher ‘corruption index’ [rating] than Zimbabwe. Chávez has skilfully created the impression that his government is for the people, but Venezuela has deteriorated horribly under him. The country is at war. I have to give a voice to people who have been completely abandoned.”

Montero rounds angrily on the international parading of El Sistema, the Venezuelan musical education programme whose most famous standard-bearer is the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, musical director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the LA Philharmonic. Montero has “played with them since I was 8, but I was never part of the Sistema. It is a beautiful flower among ruins, a nucleus of brilliant, talented people, used by the government to project an image of equality and social welfare.”

As for Dudamel, “I wish he’d speak up, of course I do, but he is in a tough position. He’s a figurehead, but if you see brutality you should say something.”

Montero declines to speak about her family, worried for their safety, but anticipates “having to get them out” of Venezuela. The last time she was there — in 2010 — she had bodyguards: “It was like being a hostage at home.”

Raised in the capital Caracas, she was just a baby when her grandmother bought Montero a mini-piano for her cot. At night her mother sang her lullabies and the Venezuelan national anthem; within 18 months Montero could play this repertoire. “I have a very good musical memory, I learn fast.”

At 3 she overheard piano lessons from an upstairs flat and played back what she heard: the teacher told Montero’s mother: “I’ve seen talent, but this girl has no horizon, no limits.” Montero started giving concerts at 5 and, when she was 8, made her debut with an orchestra. One early teacher “castrated” Montero by forbidding improvisation: it bloomed as her trademark after she decided “not to study theory, harmony, Gustavo composition and analysis. My nature is to be a composer, my improvisation is just that: me going into this imaginary world to create pieces.” would Through her twenties, including a “wonderful” period at London’s Royal Academy of Music, “I wondered, ‘Who am I?’ ”. Later she felt like “giving up, I loathed music. ‘Child prodigy’ had been superimposed on to me. I felt like a playing monkey. It took a long time to rid myself of the mediocrity I grew up with.”

At 31 Montero improvised for the Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich, “who said, ‘You have to share this with the world’, giving me the validation I needed”. Often in the second half of a concert audience members suggest songs or ringtones which Montero plays, then segues into classical compositions made up on the spot. “I’m in another space, as if something is playing through me, I basically get out of the way,” she says. “Classical music is such a bubble, improvisation really connects to younger audiences.” She hears music “everywhere, in this coffee shop, people talking, the toucans in Costa Rica where we just were.”

If Montero’s career has been a “long, winding road”, her private life has been “a big soap opera”. She has married twice: first a bartender when she was 18 in Caracas, then Jonathan, her 15-year-old daughter Natalia’s English father, when she was 26 (“one of the few nice guys in all this”). Ten-year-old Isabella’s father walked out when Isabella was almost 1. “Sam has given her so much love, understanding and confidence,” Montero says of McElroy.

Being a single mother and international pianist “was tough, a negotiation every day”. Montero’s mother helped her, but “having a crying three-year-old holding your leg, not letting you leave the house, is heartbreaking,” Montero says. “I asked myself: ‘Do I want to pay this price and make my children pay it?’, but I hope it’s shown them a woman as a strong role model.” Natalia is “a thinker”, Isabella “her own talk show and audience” with a “natural feel” for the cello.

Montero intends to compose more and next year play ExPatria with an all-female orchestra in London at the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre in March. She will also return to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she spoke three years ago, to address powerbrokers about “the hell” in Venezuela. However brilliant she would be, Montero does not want to be a politician, preferring to “help people through music. I always counted on having a home and country to return to,” she says, “but now . . .” She falls silent, then smiles, listening to the “music” all around us.