It is only natural that musicians use their own experience as a template for broader commentary on social issues and the world around them – assuming, of course, that they are willing to air their views publicly. Gabriela Montero, an expatriate Venezuelan pianist, has long been outspoken, in interviews and on Twitter, about human rights abuses in her homeland, which she has described as a narco-kleptocracy and a failed state.

Though early-20th-century Russian composers fleeing the tyranny of the Soviet state were the main focus of “Westward” – the program Montero played at Hannaford Hall in a Portland Ovations concert on Saturday afternoon – her own sense of displacement from Venezuela was not far beneath the surface.

Nor was immigration, her subtopic. The Russian composers she played, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, all left the Soviet Union for the West (although Prokofiev returned, and lived to regret it). But Montero noted, in comments from the stage, that she is an immigrant, too, a point she stressed by closing her concert with a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 silent film “The Immigrant,” for which she improvised a score.

Montero is a powerful player, and the Russian works she offered – Prokofiev’s “Sarcasms” (Op. 17) and Sonata No. 2 (Op. 14), Stravinsky’s Sonata (1924) and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 (Op. 36) – drew on her ability to put speed and volume at the service of thorny and sometimes dense music. All four works were given muscular, emotionally forceful readings, and where there was anger in the music – or even where anger could merely be deduced – Montero brought it forth, sharpening edges rather than trying to prettify them.

Though those qualities linked her performances of all these works, it was not as if she forced these three very different composers into a uniform style. In Prokofiev’s “Sarcasms,” the composer’s trademark angularity and steeliness prevailed much of the time, yet there were moments when Montero brought a necessary measure of fluidity to her tempos and dynamics, tempering the music’s brashness in more lyrical passages, but never pushing its internal tensions out of view.

Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 had a similarly flexible reading, with the appealing texturing she brought to the Andante third movement seeming a necessary (if brief) respite after the weight, incisiveness and constantly morphing detail of the first two movements, and before the pointed drama of the finale.

Montero’s account of the Stravinsky Sonata, which she played between the Prokofiev works, was in some ways a palette cleanser. Though Montero played its opening with the same weightiness she brought to the Prokofiev, she soon pulled back enough to let the provocative qualities of Stravinsky’s neo-Classical style – his toying with Baroque and Classical contours and techniques (trills, counterpoint, danceable figures) and his hopscotching between consonance and dissonance – shine through.

If there was one interpretation that raised an eyebrow, it was Montero’s account of the Rachmaninov, which had a measure of weightiness and drama well beyond what many pianists bring to it – at least, those who regard Rachmaninov, not quite fairly, as Chopin filtered through an early-20th-century lens. Apart from a huge sonority, which Rachmaninov’s music invites, what she brought to the work was a level of intensity that seemed as much as the score could bear: In the final pages, especially, it seemed that the music could not possibly be pushed harder, or farther.

Ending the concert with the Chaplin film was an inspired touch. As a comedy, it lightened the mood, although its glancing portrayal of some of the problems immigrants face (vulnerability, for one) maintained the program’s patina of social comment. Montero’s improvisational skills have been justly celebrated, and here she drew on everything from ragtime to familiar themes (“The Star Spangled Banner,” in several variations, as the immigrants’ ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty, for one), and mirrored the action nicely.

As an encore, Montero asked the audience to provide a theme – it turned out to be John Williams’ “Star Wars” title music – around which she wove an improvisation that moved through several styles. In a way, the improvisation mirrored Stravinsky’s Sonata, couching the “Star Wars” theme in Bachian counterpoint, early on, and then moving through more acerbic contemporary styles.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:
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Twitter: kozinn

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