IT’S a puzzle for Venezuelan pianist and composer Gabriela Montero that classical musicians are expected to “just shut up and play”.

She contrasts this with the world of literature, popular music and theatre where it appears to be more acceptable for artists to speak out about the issues of the day.

Her latest composition Babel, which has been co-commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble, is her reaction to the “frustrating sense of censorship” permeating much of today’s classical music world despite the well-established historical tradition of music as a creative vehicle for social and political commentary.

A portrait of Montero’s experience as a human rights activist for her politically troubled home country, Babel uses musical metaphor to communicate her difficult experience as a narrator of injustice in our frantic 21st-century society.

It will be given its European premiere this month in the UK on a tour that includes Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh and Perth.


THE title refers to the biblical Babel story, which tries to explain why people across the world spoke different languages. In the story, as told in Genesis, a united group of people arrives at the land of Shinar and works together to build a city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven. Seeing their attempt, God confounds their speech so that they can no longer understand each other, and scatters them around the world.

Explained Montero: “As someone who so strongly feels that the role of the artist is not just to provide beauty or entertainment but also to shed light on issues that are important, I wanted to write a piece that spoke of my experience as a commentator, or narrator. Babel is my attempt to convey how it feels to be in this position, facing these specific kinds of problems. I often feel as if I’m speaking into a void, and this in itself is something that deserves to be spoken about: it’s both urgent and tragic.”


SCOTTISH Ensemble wanted to commission a new piece from Montero following their first successful collaboration in 2015. That was Ex Patria, a piece for piano and orchestra that portrays the violence and human rights violations in her troubled country.

Montero said: “It’s very violent but also very beautiful and a faithful photograph of the systematic collapse and demise of my country. It was intended as a physical experience for the audience; I wanted them to be able to relate to what was happening in Venezuelan society. I wanted the public to understand our plight in a visceral way by feeling physically crushed, suffocated, and claustrophobic, as Venezuelans feel.”

Her second composition, Piano Concerto No1 (Latin), widens the focus even more by telling the story of her continent South America. It celebrates the spirit, rhythms and charm but, at the same time, highlights the darker, corruptible currents that she believes holds her continent back.


AS well as being renowned for her interpretations of the core classical piano repertoire, Montero is celebrated for her exceptional improvisational skills, often treating audiences to requests during concerts.

By doing so she is actually reviving a tradition that dates back through classical music history.

Prior to the 20th and 21st centuries, improvisation was a valued and integral part of the concert experience and an essential skill of all the great performers and composers,

from Bach and Handel through to Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.

Improvisation was even built into some types of pieces, particularly those for keyboard instruments.

Montero’s interpretations and compositional gifts have garnered her critical acclaim, a devoted following on the world stage and many awards including the prestigious 2018 Heidelberger Frühling Music Prize.


THE rest of the programme explores the theme of “music with a message”. Scottish Ensemble will perform a range of works which, like Montero’s, communicate a powerful message about humanity. The programme includes Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony Op118a, the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and Peteris Vasks’s Viatore.

Scottish Ensemble will also perform the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet For The End Of Time, an astonishing invocation of heaven written while the composer was a German prisoner of war.

There will also be theatrical touches designed and directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan and William Reynolds of Metta Theatre, one of the UK’s leading theatre and opera touring companies.

The UK’s leading string orchestra, Glasgow-based Scottish Ensemble is led by artistic director Jonathan Morton.

The tour begins today.