Thursday, June 14, 2012

Obscured by sun

Gabriela Martinez
"Headshots" (as photographic portraits of performers are known the world over) are designed to enhance physical strengths - and conceal physical flaws.  In the case of Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez, however, there just aren't that many flaws to conceal, so the photographer's job is all but done for him.  Yes, that's really her, caught candidly at left: blonde, beautiful, statuesque, and with a smile bright as a flashbulb - with that kind of physical presence, a performer has the audience in the palm of her hand the moment she steps onto a stage.

As this rising star did from the start of her concert last weekend, at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival in the (equally) gorgeous Shalin Liu Hall (see masthead above). The pianist dared to play with the hall's shades up behind her, so that she was competing with the slow sunset unfolding over Sandy Bay.  But then again, Martinez probably knew she could hold her own against it.

How strange, though, to discover that her actual playing belied the shining candor of her looks (indeed, her physical presence may contradict her artistic one).  For Ms. Martinez is a serious technician - perhaps an overly serious one (and not, apparently, a free or happy one).  She had chosen an intriguing and challenging program, studded with such concert rarities as two of Rachmaninoff's six Moments Musicaux, as well as Karol Szymanowski's even lesser-known Variations in B-flat Minor, Op. 3 (I've never even heard Szymanowski in the concert hall).  There was Beethoven, it's true, but it was a curiosity: the self-consciously whimsical (yes, whimsical) Seven Bagatelles (Op. 33); the concert concluded with its only warhorse, Schumann's Carnaval (Op. 9).  It was a program that all but cried out to be read as some kind of statement (a self-aware strain ran through the choice of composers) - but what sort of statement was it?  I'm afraid this remained unclear until the encore (Anton Rubinstein's Romance).

Martinez's selections from Rachmaninoff's Moments (she played the first and fourth) are generally considered showpieces (the first derives from Schubert, the fourth from Chopin), but they didn't really sparkle here; indeed, more often than not the contrasts between their musical sources felt a little murky.  Martinez tended to over-scale her playing for a hall as intimate as the Shalin Liu, and her touch, though sometimes sensitively plush, also had a weight that turned some clusters of notes into clots.  Indeed, I sensed over and over again the kind of mental concentration from Martinez that a performer turns to when the muscle memory isn't quite there yet - when the notes aren't "under the fingers," as musicians like to say.

The pianist herself wasn't too happy with how the Rachmaninoff came off, you could tell - she let out a tell-tale shrug as she finally lifted her fingers from the keyboard.  But the Beethoven went better, even though her emphasis on the piece's sweet galumph, with its poignant, almost tragic sense of caprice (given the composer had lost more than half his hearing when he began it), sometimes felt over-studied.  And the Szymanowski was stronger still, particularly in its brooding opening; I wondered whether this wintry Pole might be this summery Venezuelan's true artistic soulmate.  The impression was only strengthened by her take on Carnaval, Schumann's long, densely-but-brilliantly programmed evocation of a masked ball; Martinez scaled it as an epic, almost jagged march - she became so absorbed in its complexity and abrupt technical shifts that she lost all sense that it's supposed to be a party.  Oh, well; the crowd loved it anyway.  And I finally felt in her encore that I caught a glimpse of what Martinez, in the end, may be all about; Romance was completely "beneath her fingers," and her heavy, but velvety, touch perfectly matched its thoughtful, sorrowful sonority.  I somehow have the feeling that the sunny Ms. Martinez may be most inspired by musical clouds.

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