February 05, 2011
“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. ...
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Categories: Classical music, Improvisation, Innovation, Institutional personality, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts
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