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Gabriela Montero Makes It Up

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Gabriela Montero ended her concertizing year on Saturday night with a recital in the intimate and half-filled recital hall of the University of Baltimore Student Center. The Venezuelan-American pianist ends most of her recitals, like the one she gave at Sydney Harman Hall last December, with a few improvisations on themes suggested by the audience. She has become well known for this part of her performing personality, even taking suggestions from fans for a regular improvisation broadcast from her living room over the Internet (although I am not sure if that project is ongoing or not).

For this concert, she decided to play only improvisations. In her informal comments, given throughout the recital without the help of a microphone, Montero described improvisation as her "playground," a musical outlet she has enjoyed since she was a child. After being discouraged from it by severe teachers, Montero began improvising again on the recommendation of Martha Argerich and others. It has certainly distinguished Montero from the crowd, earning her Baroque disc a Grammy nomination for Best Crossover Album.

Gabriela Montero improvising at the Kölner Philharmonie
(see more videos from the Cologne recital here)

Gabriela Montero:
available at Amazon
Rhapsody (with G. Capuçon)

available at Amazon
Baroque Album

available at Amazon
Bach and Beyond

available at Amazon
Chopin, Falla, Ginestera
At this point, it is hard to say if Montero has the ingenuity, the spark of the unknowable, to move beyond being a sort of prodigious mimic to someone with more profound and original ideas. She certainly has the ear to pick out tunes sung by the audience and the facility to recast melodies in various styles: a Piazzola song as a Chopin ballade, the Star-Spangled Banner as a Handelesque toccata, Jingle Bells as a Joplin rag, Somewhere over the Rainbow as a moody tango. She entertains more than provokes or challenges. This is not to say that she does not take improvising seriously, because she does and is concerned with "keeping it fresh," as she put it, even going so far as not to play the piano for several days before this concert. She opened and closed her program with free improvisations, not on a given theme, inspired by two poems by Neruda and Borges and, added off the cuff, a musical reflection on what she described as "the ups and downs" of the past year.

It was apparently a fairly positive year, the major-key ending prompting Montero to say that she was "feeling Romantic tonight," which apparently is not her typical style. The reflexive, seemingly subconscious process is fascinating to watch. Montero typically plays the theme with its original harmony, then plays through the melody alone quickly, to absorb the intervals. Almost immediately, she appears to perceive what sort of improvisation a tune will yield. When playing through the main theme from the slow movement of Mozart's C major piano concerto, Montero shook her head and observed, "It's going to be naughty, I know that. Nothing good is going to come out of that." She then hoped that any Mozart purists in the audience would forgive her. It was a welcome change to review such a program -- no scores to study or recordings to listen to for comparison. The immediacy of the musical creation is refreshing, but one does wonder what will come of Montero's obsession. Bach, Mozart, Chopin were all legendary improvisers, but we remember them not principally for that but for what music they wrote down after working out some of their ideas.

Upcoming concerts in the Great Pianist Series at the University of Baltimore Student Center will feature Peter Serkin (April 4) and Gary Graffman (May 5).

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