Venezuelan pianist accepts challenge of symphony solo

Gabriela Martinez will perform Sergei Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Oct. 28-29.
Gabriela Martinez will perform Sergei Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra Oct. 28-29. Courtesy photo

Sergei Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” is so daunting, Daniel Hege says, that even the most seasoned and accomplished pianists won’t touch it.

“It’s one of the most virtuosic pieces out there. There’s maybe only a handful of performers, although that’s increasing now, who’ll attempt it,” said the conductor and musical director of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.

The piece, Hege says, is “technically ferocious.”

“It requires a huge amount of power, precision, stamina and just technical prowess, as well as incredible virtuosity,” he said. “It’s very advanced in terms of all the phrasing. It’s very difficult to make that all sound nuanced.”

For Gabriela Martinez, however, it was a piece for her school talent show – albeit that the school in question is Juilliard.

After listening to recordings of the piece, she was ready to tackle it at age 18 and debuting it at 19, much to the amazement of her piano instructor.

“By then she knew me well enough and she knew I was a bit of a daredevil,” Martinez said from her home in Houston.

“I learned it for the competition, and it was a very magical experience,” says Martinez, now in her early 30s, said of playing an “amazing” Steinway on stage at Avery Fisher Hall, in New York’s Lincoln Center. “It was a fun experience learning it.”

Martinez, who was born in Venezuela and whose family moved to New Jersey so she could attend Juilliard, will return to the piece next weekend as guest performer for the Wichita Symphony.

“Now that I’ve quote-unquote grown up, it’s fun going back to it,” Martinez said. “It has so much personal history for me it’s a lot of fun to revisit the piece.”

Martinez, who was featured with the Topeka Symphony Orchestra in her Kansas debut this month, returns to the state next weekend for two performances with the orchestra at Century II.

The Prokofiev, she said, “has a little bit of everything.”

Its first movement, she said, “is really full of fire.”

“It starts off with short staccatos from the orchestra and it turns into very expansive, fiery movements that just has this wonderful cadenza,” Martinez said. “(Prokofiev) really explores what the piano can do – it’s wonderful.”

The second movement, only 2-3 minutes, “is very strict in that the piano has notes all the way throughout, eighth and 16th notes all the way through, and the orchestra is doing these very exciting things but it always has the piano. The freedom is that the orchestra has this beautiful, very exciting part written and the piano has constant 16th notes all throughout.”

The intermezzo in the third movement, is slow and lyrical, Martinez said.

“Prokofiev just writes this really witty, sarcastic, sharp movement,” she said. “It’s really a lot of fun.”

The finale returns to the intensity of the second movement.

“From the very first note it grabs you,” Martinez said. “It’s so exciting and has so much drive. This one, like the first one, has credenzas written throughout. It explores a different aspect of the piano. It has a more tender side intertwined with all that fire.”

The piece is afire literally and figuratively. Prokofiev originally wrote it in 1912-1913, but it was destroyed by flames during the Russian Revolution. In 1923, after he had finished his Third Concerto, he tried to recreate it from memory but scholars consider it his Fourth Concerto, Hege and Martinez said.

“I’m not sure what it sounded like,” Martinez said of the original.

Although she hasn’t performed the piece for several years, she said it is ingrained in her.

“I feel like when you go back to study a concerto, it’s like reacquainting yourself with an old friend,” she said. “It’s really such a special process to revisit a piece and play it at different times of your life. As far as the technical aspect, it’s like practicing it and bringing it back and getting to know it again.”

Hege said Martinez is considered a rising star in classical music. She first played piano at age 5, taught by her mother, and by 7 was playing solo with symphonies.

“I’ve had a lot of music in my life, and I’ve been blessed to do this from a very young age,” she said. “It’s such a treat to be able to make music my life every day.”


When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29

Where: Century II concert hall, 225 W. Douglas

What: Gabriela Martinez solo on Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 2,” it is bookended by Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Tickets: $20 to $65, from wichitasymphony.org, by phone at 316-267-7658 or at the symphony box office.