Classical Music

Fiesta (Sinfónica) with Houston Symphony and Pianist Gabriela Martinez

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez will join the Houston Symphony for their annual Fiesta Sinfónica concert at Jones Hall.
Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez will join the Houston Symphony for their annual Fiesta Sinfónica concert at Jones Hall. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

People often ask pianist Gabriela Martinez what her favorite piece is, and her answer is pretty simple.

“It’s always whatever I’m playing that week,” says Martinez with a laugh.

Still, she says it really is George Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue,” which she will play with the Houston Symphony during their annual Fiesta Sinfónica concert.

“[It’s] one of the greatest pieces written for piano and orchestra,” says Martinez. “Musically, it has some really special moods and atmosphere. It has these incredible, large contrasts in musical texture and style and color, and [Gershwin] does such a wonderful job of having the music travel through these ranges of really intensely rhythmic piano solos to slow, broad, richly orchestrated sections.”

Martinez adds that “when playing any music,” including Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” musicians “have the amazing opportunity to tell a story and go on an adventure” with the audience.

“It’s a piece written in one movement, and it truly takes us on a journey from the very beginning without stop all the way to the end,” says Martinez. “I think it’s a truly special piece because it really represents this wonderful melting pot, this kaleidoscope that we are as a country.”

The job of a musician, Martinez says, is “to bring to life the ideas that the composers wrote” and, she notes, they tend to give a lot of information.

“They give us the notes they want us to play, they give us the tempo, what speed they want us to play it in, and you figure out the sense of the interpretation,” says Martinez. “For a piece like this Gershwin, it’s particularly exciting because it is written out – he has all the notes he wants you to play – but it’s also understood that there is some room for improvisation should you want to.”

Though there’s room for improvisation, it’s still Gershwin and it’s hard to improve on a classic.

“I feel that what he wrote is amazing, so I don’t deviate too much from the score, but there are little gestures, little timings, there are little moments that you can swing a little bit, make them more dance-like within what he wrote. That gives it that feeling of freedom. It marries jazz with classical and it makes it very interesting.”

In addition to the Gershwin piece, Martinez will perform “a surprise Venezuelan piece” as an encore.

“I’m from Venezuela, [and] I wanted to perform something from my country,” says Martinez. “I wanted to bring some of my heritage to celebrate.”

Martinez describes the musical scene in Venezuela, then and now, as “incredible.”

“It’s such a rich, vibrant country for music. It was so unique to be able to grow up like that, surrounded by incredible music,” says Martinez. “I had the opportunity to play with orchestras since I was six years old, which is crazy.”

Martinez is actually a fifth-generation female pianist, leading her to say performing and piano are in her DNA.

“I joke a little bit that I’m the black sheep of those women because my mom is an architect and has a master’s degree in music, my grandma had a PhD in philosophy and a master’s in music, and I just play music,” says Martinez with a laugh.

Though Martinez says she’s “always known that music was it” and that it would be her life, Martinez’s mother was initially against the idea of her daughter playing piano. This despite the fact that her mother taught piano in the basement of the family’s home in Venezuela.

Things changed one day after Martinez’s mother finished teaching a lesson on Beethoven’s second piano concerto. After sending her student home, Martinez’s mother went upstairs to make dinner when all of a sudden, she heard Beethoven coming from the basement again. Confused, she ran downstairs and found Martinez at the piano, trying to figure out – by ear – what the student had been playing.

Martinez says her mother finally relented on one condition: That Martinez would not play by ear; she would learn to read music. The five-year-old Martinez had a condition of her own.

“I said, ‘Great, and I want to play the Beethoven second piano concerto,’” recalls Martinez. Despite her age, Martinez did, playing the piece with orchestra just one year later.

Martinez’s family moved from Venezuela to the United States – specifically, New Jersey – after an 11-year-old Martinez was accepted into the Pre-College program at Julliard. And yet, Martinez says she never felt any pressure to pursue music.

“My whole family moved to a different country so I would have this opportunity to play music,” says Martinez. “But there was always this understanding of ‘you can do anything that you want…we support everything that you want to do.’”

Martinez adds, “I’m so lucky and grateful that my parents have always been so supportive – despite my mom not wanting me to play piano at first!”

The Houston Symphony’s annual Fiesta Sinfónica is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, October 13, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For more information, call 713-224-7575 or visit Free, but ticket reservations are required.

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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.