The epitome of virtuosity

P rodigy? Virtuoso? These are terms often loosely bandied about when discussing musicians. But both terms apply equally to Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez. Like most performers at her talent level, she began playing at an early age – 5. Unlike almost everyone else in her orbit, she is the fifth generation of women in her […]

Gabriela Martinez and DPO tackle Bernstein and Gershwin


Known for her energetic playing style, Gabriela Martinez will be pouring herself into Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F.

By Pat Suarez

Prodigy? Virtuoso? These are terms often loosely bandied about when discussing musicians. But both terms apply equally to Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez.

Like most performers at her talent level, she began playing at an early age – 5. Unlike almost everyone else in her orbit, she is the fifth generation of women in her family who were accomplished pianists. If you’re counting, the first in line would have been her great-great-grandmother, stretching back to when George Gershwin was still alive. Early on, her mother, pianist Alicia Gaggioni, pushed Gabriela to the violin, but Gabriela would have none of it, gravitating naturally to the piano, finally convincing her mother that the piano was her path. Her mother’s tutelage helped Gabriela make her orchestral debut at age 7, and to realize her potential as a musical prodigy.

Gabriela emigrated to the US to attend The Juilliard School, where she’s earned her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees, on a full scholarship. She won First Prize at the Anton G. Rubinstein International Piano Competition, was a fellow of The Academy at Carnegie Hall, and numerous other honors. She has performed with orchestras worldwide and at many prestigious venues. Among her numerous collaborators are violinists Itzhak Perlman and Elena Urioste. Perlman’s son-in-law, Robert Johnson, was once principal French horn for the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will be the latest of her orchestral performances, as she will be the soloist for two shows, June 8 and 9. She will be performing George Gershwin’s esteemed “Piano Concerto in F.” The orchestra will also be performing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, and Facsimile by Leonard Bernstein.

That Leonard Bernstein accomplished more than most music professionals is a given. That he influenced everything around him, including music, politics and life in the twentieth century is an understatement (he was even part of a bit on Vaughn Meader’s hilarious comedy LP “The First Family”). And, in the year that we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth (28 long symphony seasons after his demise), Lenny still has influence. Said another way, the man has been in his eternal reward for more than a generation and he still has his hands on the levers down here. One imagines him sitting, cigarette in hand, leaning forward in his celestial chair, sending signals down to music directors and repertoire committees from Hawaii to Boston. It’s not just that orchestras are playing Bernstein’s music this year, they also seem to be playing more American classical music than usual and one benefactor of that trend is George Gershwin.

For their final concert of the 2017–2018 season, Music Director Neal Gittleman and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will perform works by both Bernstein and Gershwin, one rarely heard and the other heard with some regularity. The concert closes with a Tchaikovsky chestnut.

When most music aficionados think of Leonard Bernstein, they think conductor. 110 years ago, the same was true of Gustav Mahler, who spent his summers in a hut, surrounded by an Austrian forest near the edge of a lake, but the rest of his time was devoted to orchestras. During his career on the podium, thousands of people saw Mahler’s diminutive, be-speckled presence leading opera, choral works and orchestral works on two continents. If they didn’t hear one of his symphonies or song cycles, most focused on what he did from September to May.

Bernstein had advantages Mahler never had: radio, TV and, of course, record albums and then CDs (Lenny was pre-streaming). But what people saw and heard was Lenny in front of an orchestra. Ergo, he was a conductor.

But, of course, you don’t get to Bernstein’s musical station by being unidimensional. Given his range of activities, that Bernstein found any time to compose was a miracle. And compose, he did.

Quick, without looking online, name five Bernstein compositions that are not “West Side Story” or “Mass”. Most readers are amazed when they learn what he did with paper and quill. Here are the genres in which Bernstein composed: Ballet, Opera, Musicals, Incidental music and other theatre, Film scores, Orchestral, Choral, Chamber music, Vocal music and Piano music. 99 compositions. Yes, really.

August, 1946. Bernstein’s duties with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood had ended and he had a few weeks before his conducting chores would begin with the New York City Symphony, of which he was Music Director. His conducting star had been set in the sky three years before when he substituted with virtually no notice for Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic in a red-meat program of Schumann, Wagner and Richard Strauss. The NY Times praised him, as did most of the Manhattan music crowd. The New York City Symphony was the brain-child of conducting legend Leopold Stokowski and was designed for music lovers of lesser means and to showcase contemporary composers…like Leonard Bernstein.

That year, the American Ballet Theater commissioned a ballet from Bernstein and that three-week window was perfect for him to create an 18-minute score for a story involving “three insecure people” (a woman and two men) involved in a nasty love triangle that plays out on a beach. The ABT watched the rehearsals and decided that “Facsimile” needed its torment toned down.

The music opens mournfully and gently, but develops into a soundscape that seems as if it had come from the pen of Bernstein contemporary Aaron Copland. The music alternates between struggle and serene beauty, fading into silence.

George Gershwin could never sit still or stand quietly in place. He would tap-dance while waiting for an elevator. As a teen, he found himself in scuffles in school, finally quitting formal education at age 15. But one memory stuck with him: a classmate playing Antonin Dvorak’s Humoresque during a violin recital. That experience led George to begin his piano studies and all that potential energy became kinetic energy through his fingers and hands on 88 keys. He didn’t necessarily lose his restlessness; he focused it to the keyboard and saved himself future grief with the law. In Gershwin’s words, “Studying the piano made a good boy out of a bad one. It took the piano to tone me down.”

Gershwin knew he had the goods to write quality music, but what music would that be? A young man in his twenties in the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Gershwin had a decision to make: follow the well-trod European tradition or carve out a new trail.

Gershwin approached Maurice Ravel, the composer who, with fellow countryman Claude Debussy, had established the French Impressionist movement, for training, but Ravel turned Gershwin down. Despite that rejection, Ravel liked what he heard from this young American, telling him, “Why should you be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?” George made the wise decision to follow his heart.

The everyday noise of life in Manhattan was Gershwin’s muse: trains, taxis, the subway and the collective din surrounding him. The electricity that was New York provided the power and the voice of the people provided the musical direction. “Old music and new music, forgotten melodies and the craze of the moment, bits of opera, Russian folk songs, Spanish ballads, chansons, ragtime ditties combined in a mighty chorus in my inner ear,” Gershwin wrote in 1926. “And through and over it all I heard, faint at first, loud at last, the soul of this great America of ours.” The result was a footlocker full of songs that defined both Gershwin and his city, penned with his brother Ira, whose lyrics merged with George’s melodies.

But the European tradition still tugged at Gershwin’s jacket sleeves. In 1924, his collaboration with band leader Paul Whiteman produced arguably the most famous American composition of all: “Rhapsody in Blue”, which Ferde Grofé, composer of the “Grand Canyon” Suite, upgraded for symphony orchestra. Was it classical? Was it jazz? It was both and Gershwin had a stepping stone to more ambitious projects.

New York Symphony Orchestra conductor Walter Damrosch laid the first stone when, after attending the premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue,” commissioned Gershwin to write a three movement concerto for piano and orchestra. Gershwin, overbooked, finally had the time in 1925, creating the first sketches in May. He completed the three movements throughout the summer, finishing in November.

The 1920’s were a difficult period for classical composers in the United States and Europe. Composers wanted to move on from the tonality of the Romantic era but had no common bond on how to do so. Arnold Schoenberg abandoned tonality altogether in 1921 with his twelve-tone compositions in which all notes were equal and there was no key signature. Igor Stravinsky opted for a free-for-all approach with an intriguing use of extreme lower and upper-register notes, often resulting in jarring blocks of sound. Gershwin elected to venture somewhere in between, using jazz as the anchor.

Gershwin was wary of the success of his “Rhapsody in Blue,” not wanting to be type-cast. “Many persons had thought that the Rhapsody was only a happy accident. Well, I went out, for one thing, to show them that there was more where that had come from. I made up my mind to do a piece of absolute music. The Rhapsody was a blues impression. The Concerto would be unrelated to any program.” He succeeded with his audience, but not necessarily with newspaper critics who maintained a mind-set of what a classical piano concerto was supposed to be. That attendees loved the concerto was all that mattered to Gershwin and they have continued to love it for going on a hundred years.

When one considers the list of composers who died in their middle age, Gustav Mahler comes to mind. He was 50 when a heart condition felled him. But not many people know to add Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky to that list: he only saw three more years on this planet than Mahler did. And it’s fair to ask that age-old question, “What else would Tchaikovsky have written had he lived to 80?” But it’s also fair to answer, “Look what he did with 53 years!” Late Mahler sounds like late Mahler only because Mahler knew he was dying. Late Tchaikovsky sounds like late Tchaikovsky because he wanted to die. Still, one can speculate what might have come if each had been granted two
more decades.

Few composers elicit anticipation as does Tchaikovsky. If one of his works is on a program, most people check that concert as one to definitely attend. Of course, ironically, and despite all that Tchaikovsky wrote, the list of his works that see regular rotation extends to only about a dozen (symphonies, concerti and ballet). Still, that’s a potent offering that brings predictable returns to the orchestras that program them.

One of those legendary works is the Fourth Symphony, which closes the DPO’s concert and season. Tchaikovsky wrote it between 1877 and 1878, on the heels of his disastrous attempt at marriage. Tchaikovsky was never a happy man, but this time in his life was a new low, even for him.

For Tchaikovsky, his disappointments meant going back to work and sending letters to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. In the late 19th century, a composer’s relationship with a patron was more than just receiving money and offering acknowledgments. Patrons were partners in the equation. So, when Tchaikovsky wrote “Dedicated to my best friend,” that transcended even the normal composer-patron link. He even sought out von Meck’s thoughts on musical construction as he wrote his f-minor symphony (note that this key signature is also that of Gershwin’s piano concerto).

The sum total of this work’s 40 minutes is what might be termed “the happiness of misery,” an earthquake of a catharsis that sweeps away the angst of one’s life, a tidal wave of euphoria that can lead the world-weary soul to a renewed hope for the future.

Martinez Plays Gershwin will be presented by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra at the Schuster Center, One W. 2nd St., Dayton on June 8 and 9. The program will be preceded by Eric Street’s Take Note mini-lectures at 7:00 p.m. both evenings. For tickets or more information, call 937.224.3521, or visit daytonperformingarts.org.

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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