Fine Words and Music 

... Montanus loves to play music

Jackie Wattenberg

John Montanus loves to play the piano, you can tell. And he loves to talk about music, you can hear him at each of his recitals. So his dual gifts are popular with music lovers in Melrose and nearby towns where Beethoven Society members may dwell.

On Sunday afternoon, the pianist offered a program of Romantic composers, originally planned for Valentine's Day; however, an injury from pushing a piano  around delayed the program until last Sunday.

He performed in the Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church, where he is the organist-pianist and choir director. Amicable, cheery-faced, a bit stocky and middle-aged, he is unflappable as he relates facts and fascinating tidbits about the famous composers, then sits at his wonderfully toned Steinway to immediately immerse himself in the music. He is a player with inherent musicality, so he can never play to the bandstand or show off with florid gestures. To some, it's amazing that he can chat brightly with his receptive audience -- and they were receptive -- and then lose himself in the mood and style of the music without blinkng his eye.

Sunday brought the ubiquitous Romantics - Chopin, Brahms, Clara Schumann, MacDowell and Elgar and a lesser known contemporary of these masters, Max Reger, best known for Christmas songs. He had not committed the works to memory, but reads the music. So casual is he about performing that when asked beforehand what music he could be playing, he replied, "I'm not quite sure yet." He must have had a pretty good idea, because he never hesitated for notes (perhaps just when turning pages), dynamics or phrasing, always interpreting with his special sensitivity.

He began by telling us of the popularity of the piano with early composers, and even with early pioneers who often lugged a piano on their long treks westward.

His first work was what he termed "an old chestnut," indeed a very familiar melody, Elgar's "Salut d'Amour," embraced with a lovely delicacy, and building to firmness of the middle section, dramatically.

Compositions of Clara Schumann, pianist, wife of the more famous Robert Schumann, have been given new prominence lately, and so with Montanus. He played several of her pieces, all quite appealing if light, with interesting delving into unexpected chord changes. He brought out the gentle dreaminess of MacDowell in "Sun Outside the Prince's Door," and "Beauty in the Rose Garden," and a rarely-heard "Allegretto" by Reger with Impressionist soft touches was quite fetching.

The substance and strength of Brahms were highlights, truly "romantic" in their emotional depth. The Ballade in D Minor, opus 10, was given a forceful reading suited to its message of violent inspiration and the beautiful Intermezzo in E Flat Major was imbued with the warmth and coloration it requires. A Chopin mazurka, a contrast by being more rhythmic than romantic, and a Chopin Nocturne closed the program.

Musicologist and pianist, Montanus would be great in bringing the charm of music to school children. Yet some time, it would be rewarding to lose ourselves in the spell of his fine playing, a whole group of pieces, so we could sustain the spell, his playing creates. Whatever, Melrose's cultural life is enriched by this "Renaissance Man."

Jackie Wattenberg is the arts columnist for the Free Press and a Melrose resident.

Originally published in
Reprinted in the Melrose Mirror with Their permission.

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