Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero: 'How can we not take a stand?'

With an extremely rare gift for improvisation, the Venezuelan pianist has wowed audiences for decades. The de facto implosion of her homeland has made her an advocate for her people.

Gabriela Montero's artistry is as amazing as it is inexplicable. Her recitals, in which she will improvise on the spot on a tune suggested by an audience member, are rare experiences. An early and outspoken opponent of the Chavez regime in Venezuela, she has watched the dramatic decline of her native country from afar, while the deepening crisis there has further stimulated Montero's communication — in words, and in music.

Beethovenfest | 06.10.2010

In a ceremony and concert on December 4 in Bonn, Montero is awarded the 2018 Beethoven Prize. Earlier awards have gone to Aeham Ahmad, a Syrian pianist who once performed in the rubble of his Damascus suburb; Fazil Say, the Turkish pianist and composer who has taken a courageous stand vis-a-vis the government in his homeland, and Wolfgang Niedecken, the German rocker whose humanitarian activities include helping child soldiers in Africa.

Deutsche Welle: You are being awarded the Beethoven Prize "for human rights, peace, freedom, against poverty and for inclusion." What does this prize mean to you?

Gabriela Montero: It's a huge honor and a recognition of the importance of the role we can play in this world, to speak out against injustice, and in my case, to tell the story of the Venezualen people and the great suffering we have been enduring these past twenty years. It also means that a classical artist doesn't just have to bring beauty and entertainment to the world, but can actually go further and be a role model.

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"Music just flows through me," says the astonishing pianist, composer and improviser

Do you feel that it's an artist's obligation to do that?

Given the times we live in, how can we not? If we are communicators, have a microphone and an audience to speak to, how can we not use these opportunities to tell the stories that need to be told? Especially with the silence that surrounds the Venezuelan situation even now.

Beethoven himself made a statement to the effect of: "Esteem freedom above all else and help wherever one can." That's the inspiration for this Beethoven Prize. But does his music itself somehow contain a call to action?

Playing Beethoven's music and loving it, I've always felt that what moves me the most is that in it he seeks to transcend the limitations of being a human being. This is music that reaches for the heavens and sends a message: How can we better ourselves and be more than we are? 

Some people say that music is value-neutral. Others say that it makes us better people, but I wonder about that. To take one example, there were many music lovers among the Nazis, and it didn't seem to make them better people. Does music actually have a humanizing potential?

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No, I don't believe that. I think that branding music that way is a wonderful marketing tool. But as an artist and as an Amnesty International Honorary Counsel — as someone who fights for human rights and speaks out — I do believe that music without an ethical background or message is devoid of anything. It's beautiful, but I don't want to admire a beautiful vase. I want to do something with it, to make it useful, to contribute to humanity. So yes, for me, music is a purposeful art. Even though my activism has brought no benefit to me whatsoever. An artist is used to being admired and applauded. To position yourself and know you are a target is not an easy role to assume. 

Montero's music communicates not only suffering, but also joy

Do you think that what happened in Venezuela is perhaps a socialist ideal that went wrong?

It's important for people to understand that what is going on in Venezuela is no longer about left or right, about political ideologies. This is a kleptocracy, a country that has been kidnapped by what is now known to be a drug cartel. The excuse of socialism was very attractive to intellectuals. But now it's clear that Venezuela is a failed state, a narco-mafia, a country where 30,000 people are murdered every year and where a Twitter blogger can be incarcerated just for tweeting. Where torture is widespread, where people are earning two to four dollars a month salary and half a dozen eggs costs five dollars. Where people don't have access to antibiotics or aspirin. Thousands of Venezuelans are walking to Columbia, Peru or Brazil every single day. It's effectively a genocide.

Read more3 million people have fled Venezuela says UNHCR

How can one help?

First, by breaking what is still too much silence. This is not just dangerous to Venezualens but to the entire world. 

Does the reality of today's world enter into your music?

In 2011 I decided to write a piece called "Ex Patria," my first composition, a tone poem for piano and orchestra. In it, I honored the 19,336 victims of homicide in the year 2011 alone. And sometimes I improvise in my concerts, saying "this is what Venezuela feels like." Then I go into a state of almost mourning. I often cry when I am doing those improvisations. And the public really goes on that journey with me. Sometimes you'll hear audience members crying as well. These pieces have been useful in telling the story of murder, kidnapping, starvation, exile, broken families — and in creating a state of empathy.

An outspoken advocate for human rights in conversation with Rick Fulker

Are your activities acknowledged or known in your home country?

Yes, but the government controls most of the media, and there is also censorship, which is not easy to break through. But whatever I do is shared in the international Venezuelan community. They come to thank me at my concerts everywhere for being their voice.

Can music change people's lives?

Here's one example: every day I receive messages from Venezuelans asking for help. Three years ago, an incredibly talented young tenor named Luis Magallanes started writing to me on Facebook. he wanted to know whether he had a shot at making it in the wider world, so I asked him to send me a video of him singing. When my husband and I heard him on it, we were absolutely blown away and decided: We have to help this kid! With his talent and determination and through the help of the international Venezuelan community, he is now studying in Dublin with a full scholarship at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and doing incredibly well. This is the story of just one man. There are hundreds and thousands more like him. I'll perform with him tonight and we'll also hear two other Venezuelans who are studying in Barcelona, the violinist Arianna Soledad Orono and the violist Johan Rondon Castillo. That, to me, will be the biggest joy of the evening.

Gabriela Montero spoke with DW's Rick Fulker.

The perilous flight out of Venezuela

Iconic image

Each day 30,000 to 40,000 people cross the 315-meter-long (1,000-foot-long) Simon Bolivar bridge (pictured) between Venezuela and Colombia. Since September 2015 some 20 million Venezuelans have crossed into the neighboring Colombian province of Norte de Santander, says its governor William Villamizar. At the same time, he adds, 17 million individuals have been registered as entering Venezuela.

The perilous flight out of Venezuela

Shopping over the border

Most Venezuelans come to Colombia to stock up on basic food stuff and medicine. It is cheaper there than in their own country, where inflation has spiraled out of control and made the Bolivar, Venezuela's currency, nearly worthless. Some 3 million citizens are thought to have permanently migrated to Colombia.

The perilous flight out of Venezuela

Refugiados welcome?

Colombians initially welcomed fleeing Venezuelans with open arms, just like Germans welcomed refugees in summer 2015. But now, experts say, the mood has shifted. Many have begun demanding the government provide less financial support to refugees and instead invest more in helping ordinary Colombians. However, aid for refugees is still provided in reception centers (above).

The perilous flight out of Venezuela

Heading south

According to official figures, approximately 1 million Venezuelan nationals currently reside in Colombia. Given that a total of 3 million Venezuelans crossed into Colombia, about 2 million must have traveled onward. In the first half of 2018 alone, over 500,000 of them migrated to Colombia's southern neighbor Ecuador.

The perilous flight out of Venezuela

Stopover in Ecuador

Ecuadorian authorities estimate that only 20 percent of Venezuelan nationals who arrived in the country in 2018 permanently settled there, like this family living in a makeshift camp near the capital, Quito. Most Venezuelans presumably intend to keep on traveling southward and reach either Peru, Chile or Argentina.

The perilous flight out of Venezuela

Hitting the brakes

After several days when some 5,000 Venezuelans wanted to cross from Colombia into Ecuador, Quito began demanding that Venezuelan nationals show valid passports to emigrate, rather than just an ID as was previously needed. This new regulation applies to adults. For children, proof of paternity and parental passports is enough to let them cross the border.

The perilous flight out of Venezuela

Chain reaction

After Ecuador Peru followed suit, announcing it would implement the same regulation in the near future. Peruvian Interior Minister Mauro Medina said that about 80 percent of Venezuelan refugees arrive with valid passports, but many Venezuelan NGOs warn that passports have now become luxury items in the crisis-stricken country, requiring large sums of cash or high-level contacts to acquire one.

The perilous flight out of Venezuela

Tension in the air

More than 100,000 Venezuelans have migrated to Brazil since 2016, most of them to the country's north. From there, roughly half them travel onward to Ecuador and Peru. The situation in northern Brazil is tense: The country's government has said it will redistribute Venezuelan immigrants to other regions. Critics have accused the government authorities of failing to support Brazil's border region.

The perilous flight out of Venezuela

Attacks and confrontations

Last weekend, local residents in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima attacked makeshift camps housing Venezuelan refugees. They set their dwellings on fire and drove hundreds back across the border. Media reports say Brazilian police did nothing to stop the mob violence. The attack was said to be triggered by the robbery of a Brazilian businessman — a crime allegedly committed by refugees.