Gabriela Montero isn't interested in escapism.
Even though a glance at the music on this weekend's Minnesota Orchestra program could give the sense that a balmy musical holiday in equatorial climes was in order, Montero wants you to have a deeper, more enlightening experience than your typical tourist jaunt.
So, amidst a concert full of music rooted in Spain or Latin America, the Venezuelan pianist presented a piece far more complex than some sun-soaked frolic. And the composer of this standout work was Montero herself.
It was her First Piano Concerto, nicknamed the "Latin," a piece that packed a lot of power, yet was also rooted in the dance rhythms of South and Central America that call to the mind's eye swiveling hips and graceful spins. It also had much to say about systems of politics and economics that too often drain humanity from the equation. And all of this without speaking a word.
Friday evening's concert at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall left me feeling that I had encountered a very important artist. Despite it being Montero's Minnesota Orchestra debut, I had heard of her gifts in classical music circles — that she was not only an exceptional interpreter of piano repertoire, but also a human rights activist, an ambassador for Amnesty International who's outspoken about the plight of her fellow Venezuelans.
And that comes through in her "Latin" Concerto. It's a work at turns invigorating, haunting, sorrowful and thrilling. Montero's gripping performance with conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and the Minnesota Orchestra made a case that she might become the classical scene's next great composer/pianist.
It's not that Montero's concerto threw everything around it into eclipse, for the energetic Prieto also led the orchestra in a very exciting take on music from Spanish composer Manuel de Falla's ballet, "The Three-Cornered Hat," and addressed the clash between colonialism and Indigenous cultures in Carlos Chávez's "Sinfonia India." And there was much to admire in the curtain-raising interpretation of Maurice Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole," even if it could have used more of the punch and crispness accorded the de Falla later in the evening.
Yet the richest rewards were derived from the Montero concerto, which I harkened back to again and again hours after the concert. It's not that it was something entirely original and unheard of, for there were aural glimpses of George Gershwin's lone piano concerto and the way that Leonard Bernstein orchestrated Latin dance rhythms in "West Side Story." But it was astonishing how Montero, for example, transformed a lively mambo into an oppressive march.
Or how she created such an absorbing slow movement, opening and closing it with wistfully sad solos, but building it into something reminiscent of Sergei Rachmaninoff's weighty romanticism in the middle. And what a percussion fest the finale was, both in the pianist's rapid-fire clusters of chords and in the stirring assemblage of drums, bells and shakers.
The percussionists proved equally entertaining on the Chávez and de Falla pieces, zipping about gracefully from one assignment to another, an effervescent encore of José Pablo Moncayo's "Huapango" allowing them one more opportunity to express their contagious joy in music making.
With: Conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and pianist Gabriela Montero
What: Works by Maurice Ravel, Montero, Carlos Chávez and Manuel de Falla
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
Tickets: $30-$99, available at 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at email@example.com.