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By Sumi Hahn
A year ago, Gabriela Montero visited Seattle for the first time, a relative unknown in these parts. Then Obama got elected, and she played at his Inauguration. Introductions are now unnecessary for this Venezuelan pianist who is celebrated for her jaw-dropping improvisations.
Thursday night at Benaroya, Seattle audiences got their second chance to hear Montero improvise, within the context of Mozart's buoyant Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major. If you haven't yet heard this wondrous pianist, buy your tickets now.
Montero's performance was as deceptively unconventional as her clothes — a shimmery baby-doll smock and clingy leggings underneath a dress jacket with 3-inch spike peep-toe heels. At a casual glance, this outfit approximated a more typical black tuxedo, just as Montero's silken rendition of the concerto sounded, to a casual ear, like textbook happy Mozart.
So seamless were Montero's improvisations that it wasn't always easy to figure out just where Mozart ended and Montero began, though trying to do so brought an unexpected level of sheer whimsy to the entire listening experience, like a musical "Where's Waldo?" game. (The end of the first moment? Peekaboo Montero. The end of the famously moody second? Mostly Mozart.) After a bit, I was able to discern a slight textural shift in the improvised sections: Montero lays on the pedal more thickly when she extemporizes.
As distractingly wonderful as Montero's improvisations are — her transformation of "On Top of Old Smoky" into a Bach-esque invention made for a most gratifying encore — she'd be a mere curiosity without her pure tone and fierce musicality. As a straightforward interpreter, she ranks with the best. A goddess.
The Seattle Symphony players, under the guest baton of Norwegian conductor Arild Remmereit, were as rapt as the audience during their delightful accompaniment of the Mozart. A similar level of engagement propelled the opening piece, the Partita Sinfonica by Ludvig Irgens-Jensen.
Remmereit introduced his compatriot's 1939 piece as being, most likely, an American debut, before jumping, as gangly-elegant as a grasshopper, into a storm of seething strings and surging brass. There was as much energy in this 15-minute piece by a total stranger as there was in the evening's expected showstopper, Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony, which took a while to get in gear. Still, there were bright spots, such as the "Swan Lake"-y yearning melody introduced by flutist Scott Goff in the first movement.
After a rather enervated second movement, the rousing third movement provided perfect contrast for the famously depressing Finale, which, with its shivery foreboding, slowly let all the air out of the room.