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“It’s how I speak through music,” Gabriela Montero told us last night at the Harris Theater as she shifted into the improvisation portion of her recital. This was the part we were all waiting for, and what followed was highly un-classical behavior both onstage and in the audience. Evidence: a few dozen of us lustily sang the first few lines of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” to Montero from our seats.
I’ll come back to that Billy Joel tune in a second. First, some setup about this unusual pianist and this split-personality concert. Montero, who hails from Venezuela and made her debut at the age of five, has the interpretive vision and technical brilliance to have become a top “straight” classical pianist, the kind who plays recitals and concertos at famous venues around the world. And in a way, she’s done exactly that.
In fact, for the first two-thirds of her concert last night, you would have thought that was the whole story. Polite applause when performer emerges from wings. Performer plays pieces listed in program, exits between groups of pieces, reenters to more applause. All very conventional, which I found disappointing. When latecomers were seated between works, Montero smiled a tight, annoyed smile and waited what seemed to me a pretentiously long time for silence before launching into the next piece.
But that’s not the whole story. Montero has also been improvising since childhood, and she does it at almost every concert, as a kind of extended encore to whatever’s on the program. She does it so brilliantly you’d swear you were listening to a canonical work by Chopin, Schubert, Haydn, or Bach, depending on her mood, and sometimes with a Latin dance rhythm thrown in for fun.
But to emphasize that you’re not listening to one of those masters, or to anything composed at all, Montero invites her audiences to suggest themes or songs that she can riff on. Hence the Billy Joel song we belted, which Montero knew but only vaguely. This isn’t a parlor trick meant to emphasize her ability to think on her feet. As she explained to us in the midst of the laughter-filled, at time raucously participatory improvisational section of the concert, the idea is to incorporate a melodic fragment of a song the whole audience knows, so everyone can hear it peeking out and being transformed during the five-or-so-minute-long impromptu she spins from it.
I found the experience dazzling and giddily fun, even oddly moving. We’re used to hearing works composed in the past, played by performers whose primary job is to connect us as directly as possible to the music in the score. The performer speaks for the composer, using her own “voice” to express what someone else wrote — the musical equivalent of a quote, not an utterance. ...
Here, Montero was speaking for herself, directly and intimately to us. She began that part of the concert by telling us, with disarming simplicity, that she loves improvising and finds it a natural way of communicating. This was her favorite part of the program, she said, and the most fun. When she asked for our first suggestion, she was amused (along with the rest of us) to hear a basso-voiced guy toward the back of the house bellow the Chicago Bears fight song over the cacophony of other nominations. With great humor, Montero tried to get us all to sing the first phrase or two in the same key (“That’s horrible,” she laughed). Picking out the kernel of the tune on the piano, she set down her microphone and quieted the crowd by ripping off a Beethovenian, propulsive, harmonically inventive fantasy on that unpromising little motif.
Then, in various styles, she did the same for a song by Venezuelan folkie Simón Díaz that some of Montero’s countrymen called out (eliciting some Spanish banter from the pianist, which the many South Americans in the audience loved), the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” our Billy Joel number, and “All that Jazz.”
To give the you idea, here's Montero improvising in Cologne, Germany.
So this was two different concerts, operating according to very different values and vibes. Why can’t more classical concerts be like the second one — spontaneous, warmly funny, participatory, and expressive of something happening right now, right here? It can, of course; there’s a whole new discussion about classical improvisation underway, although it’s still mostly on the fringes. Musicologists like Susan McClary at UCLA study its history, finding that improvisation used to be a big part of what we now call classical performance. Pianist and scholar Robert Levin improvises, but mostly in safe zones like ornamentation and cadenzas. The New England Conservatory has had a Contemporary Improvisation program for decades, but its roots are really in world music, jazz, and Cagean experiments with chance — nothing like the lush, tonal, structurally coherent pieces that Montero whips up from scratch.
In fact, the only other time I’ve seen anything like it was in college, when a talented, eccentric kid a year younger than I was — a guy named Charlie Goldbeck — used to sit down at one of the Steinways that dot Yale’s common rooms and...well, pull a Montero. (If Charlie’s still playing these days and you know where he is, I’d love to hear from you.) There probably aren’t many people who can do it, even among the musicians we think of as gifted and deeply musical. If we wanted to make it more common in our concert halls and club venues, we’d have to change the way we train, select, and reward musicians.
Which could be just what the doctor ordered for a classical music field struggling for relevance in the 21st century. There’s something so present and alive about the kind of experience Montero created, an experience fundamentally different from hearing performances of works composed in the past (even if “past” means last week).
Of course, there’s room for both: a Schubert-flavored improvisation won’t replace the Schubert Impromptus. And I realize that improvisation isn't the only way to make a classical concert more interactive, spontaneous, and present tense. But it may be the most authentic way, because it’s not a layer of technology or performance convention or concert format around the music-making. It is the music-making.
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