Montero pushes Music of the Baroque with a spirited Mozart

By Katherine Buzard, Chicago Classical Review
January 22, 2023

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero proved an energetic foil, and then some, to the measured and refined sensibilities of Dame Jane Glover and the Music of the Baroque orchestra in concert on Saturday night at the Harris Theater of Music and Dance. Performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, Montero brought an urgency to her debut with the baroque orchestra that sometimes bordered on rushed. But her technical brilliance, nuanced phrasing and deep sense of style prevailed in an exciting rendition of a movie-famous work.

Things got a bit untidy in the rapid scales and arpeggios of the first movement, which rushed ahead of the orchestra: Montero’s preferred tempo seemed to be a few ticks faster than conductor Glover’s, and she continued to push the tempo in places so much so that the orchestra could not keep up. By the recapitulation, though, the tempo seemed to settle as Glover picked up on Montero’s urgency and Montero’s adrenaline abated. Overall, this pushing and pulling of the tempo made for a sense of spontaneity and invention on the spot, even if it was nerve-wracking.
The sun-dappled second movement, sometimes nicknamed “Elvira Madigan” for its use in a 1967 Swedish film of the same name, was elegantly phrased by all. The famous genteel melody was not overwrought — Glover and Montero just let it speak for itself. The magic was broken only slightly by winds sometimes overpowering the piano.

Montero’s forward propulsion returned in the final movement, and this time the orchestra seemed less resistant. In this one of Mozart’s most technically challenging concertos, Montero executed the rapid scales with absolute ease and brought some romanticism to a dense final cadenza — which may have been of her own invention, as Mozart’s original cadenzas for No. 21 are lost.
A composer known especially for her improvisational ability, Montero offered to riff on a well-known musical theme of the audience’s choosing as her encore. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow!” an audience member shouted. After a quick run-through of the song with standard jazz harmonies, Montero launched into a Bach variation that was so stylistically appropriate and brilliantly crafted, it went beyond the realm of fun party trick into high art.

Bookending the piano concerto were Symphony No. 1 by Mozart contemporary Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major. Bologne’s symphony, one of only two of his to survive, was a well-constructed gem full of pleasing melodies. As usual, Glover was refined in her interpretation, bringing out subtle details and textural contrasts with the point of her index finger or swoop of her hand.

For Symphony No. 39, the reins were firmly back in Glover’s hands. Conducting from memory and without a podium, she was practically one of the players. With the normal barriers down, an intensified connection produced the most unified playing of the night.

Glover’s interpretation was characteristically nuanced and controlled while still vibrant, and precisely shaped with the utmost economy of gesture. Stand-out moments included the breezy clarinet solo played by Zach Good — and echoed by Mary Stolper on flute in the Trio — and the opening theme of the finale, which Glover had the violins play molto piano at first before the full orchestra entered, heightening the Haydn-esque wit of the movement. Overall, Music of the Baroque’s performance of this late Mozart symphony demonstrated just why Glover is the master of Mozart.