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gabriela montero: as a 21st century improviser, she's one of a kind…

March 16, 2009

If I were to name one element of jazz music, without which it would not be jazz, that characteristic would have to be improvisation. In the past, however, improvisation has also been a hallmark of classical musicianship. As Eric Barnhill reminds us, the examples of this fact are many:

J.S. Bach, during his lifetime, was little appreciated as a composer—his work was criticized for being dense and pedantic—but he was widely recognized as the greatest organ improviser on the European continent; developing improvisatory skills was at the very center of his teaching methodology. Handel wrote only one essay on performance, but half of it was devoted to improvising on fugues and dances. According to scholars, Mozart was most famous in his day “first as an improviser, then as a composer, then as a pianist.” In a famous piano competition in front of the Pope, Mozart and Clementi not only had to improvise in the final round, they had to improvise pieces together!

As was the case with Mozart, Beethoven was best known in Vienna, not as a composer, but as an “astounding” improviser, and he continued to improvise publicly until he could no longer do so. Although Beethoven would have liked nothing better than to study with Mozart, he was never able to do so; in fact, the two met only one time, and that was at a party. In order to show him what he could do, Beethoven asked Mozart for themes on which he could improvise. At the conclusion of Beethoven’s demonstration, Mozart reportedly said to his colleague Attwood, “Someday, he will give you something to talk about.”

During his lifetime, Schubert was almost completely unknown as a composer, but he was well recognized as an improviser; he used to spend all night in taverns, improvising waltzes, dances, character pieces, and drinking songs. Chopin used improvisation to generate nearly all the compositional material he used in his pieces. He was quite comfortable performing in public, but he let only a few of his closest friends hear him improvise. One of these, of course, was his dear friend, the writer George Sand; she is known to have said that his compositions were “but a pale shadow of his improvisations.”

Franz Liszt was accustomed to traveling from town to town, giving virtuosic solo piano recitals; concertizing in this manner actually originated with him. The first thing he did when he came to town was to go to the town’s opera house, to see what works were being performed there by the opera and ballet. He would then conclude his concert with breath-taking improvisations on themes from the operas and ballets that were appearing locally at that time.

Johannes Brahms used to play the piano in bars as a child, earning money by playing by ear waltzes and dances that were sung for him, and then improvising on those tunes in the Viennese manner. On a later occasion, Brahms was playing a Beethoven violin sonata in a performance which happened to have been attended by Robert Schumann. Because the piano was mistuned, Brahms was required to play the piece by ear in a different key than it was written, in order to match the pitch of the violinist. Schumann was impressed to recognize what Brahms was doing, and immediately after the performance, Schumann sought him out. It was in this manner that Brahms came to public prominence!

One last example: Claude Debussy believed that his main creative source flowed through improvisation; he reportedly said that his harmonic innovations came from his “following the law of pleasure of the ear.” Debussy also liked to capitalize on out-of-tune pianos: with his attraction for exotic sonorities, he especially liked to improvise on them, letting the instrument’s particular sonorities move him to create in unexpected ways.

It was only “After the Golden Age” (as Kenneth Hamilton titled his Oxford History of Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance) that artistic license to improvise upon a piece’s melody and harmonies was suppressed. The remarkable pianist Gabriela Montero, born May 10, 1970 in Caracas, Venezuela, sees herself as the modern liberator of this artistic license.

Gabriela, by the way, was the pianist you saw most recently on January 20, 2009 at President Obama’s inauguration, with violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo Yo Ma, and clarinetist Anthony McGill, playing “Air and Simple Gifts,” a new arrangement by John Williams based on the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts.

Serving as “lightning rod” for classical “purists” who malign improvisation has not been easy for Gabriela. But why not let her start the story at its beginning? As Norman Lebrecht reported a year ago:

“My first Christmas,” Gabriela relates, “when I was seven months old, my grandmother bought a two-octave toy piano for my cousin who was three. I began to play the songs my mother sang to get me to sleep. She recorded me.”

Gabriela gave a private recital comprised of her improvisations on her third birthday; formal lessons began at age four. She gave her first public performance at the age of five. At age eight she made her concert debut with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, under the baton of its founder, José Antonio Abreu; this resulted in her being given a scholarship from the Venezuelan government to study in the United States. As a result, she spent the next ten years studying with a woman whom Gabriela remembers as “the worst possible person I could have ended up with.” The experience nearly drove her away from playing the piano for life.

“My teacher was mediocre in spirit and she wanted me to be like her. She managed to make me hate music, and therefore myself. I stopped playing for two years.” Her teacher disparaged improvisation, calling it a useless ability, not to be shared; a practice that “will result in ridicule”; a talent that should be “locked up.” Because improvisation had been such an important part of Gabriela’s musical identity and enjoyment, this denigration of her talent caused her to doubt herself and her career in music.

She returned to Caracas at age 18, tried volunteer hospital work, and wandered into an ill-advised marriage. In 1990, a friend induced her to perform the Brahms D minor concerto with only two weeks’ notice. With no expectations or pressure to succeed, Gabriela discovered that all the old feelings for music returned. She applied for and received a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, to which she hastened, leaving the marriage behind. While in London she met and married an English Lawyer, father of the first of her two daughters, Natalya, but this marriage failed as well.

Entering the 1995 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland, Gabriela spent two days in tears, unable to find a rehearsal piano she could afford. But as she went on stage, she says, “a heat wave went through my body. I played like I did not give a damn. It was mystical and out of myself. I knew that’s what I had to connect to whenever I play.”

She won third prize in the Chopin Competition, and a barrage of opportunities followed. “But then I lost my way again.” She moved from London to Miami to Caracas; “I wanted to study psychology, I volunteered to help the elderly.” She lived in Montreal for three years—“in love with a Canadian”—then in Amsterdam (with a Dutch singer), and finally flew home to Caracas, “because basically my heart was broken.”

But in 2001 she met the Argentine virtuoso pianist Martha Argerich (whom Barbara and I heard as guest soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on March 14th, playing the Ravel G major piano concerto), who changed her life. Gabriela improvised a 20-minute portrait of Argerich, and the artist was delighted. Furthermore, Argerich urged her to take her improvisation seriously. “I was afraid to do it on stage, it felt improper. And Marta said to me: ‘Gabriela, you can do this, and no one else can. Why don’t you do it?’” So she does!

Gabriela does classical improvisation, virtually unheard of in this day and age. Sometimes, with little or no notice, she abandons the printed program and simply devotes the time to free improvisation instead. Because some people questioned the authenticity of her talent, she began soliciting themes from the audience on which she can improvise, which has elicited anything from German folk melodies and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (which combines the tune of the 1761 French melody “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman” with an English poem, The Star by Jane Taylor) to the Pittsburgh Steelers Fight Song, and everything in between. It takes courage to challenge a full hall of expectant faces, but Gabriela Montero is not about to shrink from being simply herself.

“Maybe I’m a rebel,” Gabriela told Norman Lebrecht, “but artists get asked three years in advance what we want to play in this hall or that festival. How do I know what I’ll feel like playing in 2010? It makes no sense for me not to do improvisation when that feels right to me. Not to do it would be like giving only half of myself to an audience.”

Gabriela has bought a home near Boston and, though single, seems happy. “I feel that what I am doing now,” she says, “has some importance. I want to widen the parameters of the concert. I love the look on people’s faces when it’s unexpected.”

Gabriela Montero can be heard on a number of recently released CDs, including 2005’s Gabriela Montero plays Chopin, Falla, Ginestera, Etc.; 2006’s Bach & Beyond and Gabriela Montero en Concert à Montréal; 2007’s Baroque Album and Montero Plays Chopin; and 2008’s Rhapsody. In addition, Gabriela plays with Martha Argerich on 2006’s Martha Argerich and Friends Live from the Lugano Festival 2005: Chamber Music; 2007’s Martha Argerich and Friends Live from the Lugano Festival, 2006; and 2008’s Brahms, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff: Music for Two Pianos.

Finally, Gabriela Montero can be seen improvising at the conclusion of a concert at the Koelner Philharmonie on a film clip at her website here; just click on “Live at the Koelner Philharmonie, Chapter 10.”


Wow! I was looking through those different albums on Amazon - and she sure has gone through some very different looks & style phases!! Thanks for sharing, I am going to check some out.

  • —Anonymous, March 16, 2009 07:04 pm

She certainly has! Thanks for taking the time to check her out; I think you are going to appreciate your exploration. I think the two albums that best exemplify her improvisation are "Bach & Beyond" and "Baroque Album"; enjoy!

  • —Bob, March 17, 2009 02:50 pm

Very nice summary of the history of classical improvisation. I have heard the amazing Gabriela and knew that hers is a "lost art," but didn't realize just how prevalent it was among the great composers. Oh, to be able to hear Chopin's improvisations!

  • —Julie, March 17, 2009 09:49 pm

I'm so heartened to hear about musicians like this. I began to study classical piano when I was very young. I reached a fairly advanced level of play, but got away from it partly I think because it was nothing but an exercise in moving my hands correctly. I felt like a paint by numbers artist, and I've never been terribly moved by jazz, so I never hit upon improvisation in my lessons.

I've decided to buy myself a piano and get back to it, and I intend to pick out things I like, adapt things I've heard, and perhaps keep the Chopin sheet music book closed this time around.

Especially with such a massive, mechanical instrument as the piano, it's so easy to become nothing more than a deft, glorified machine operator if you're not careful. I want to OWN the noise the machine makes!

  • —Janis, August 27, 2009 07:38 pm

Good for you, Janis! I suspect that there are other music students who feel as you do but have not identified or expressed their opinions as eloquently. I'd like to wish you God-speed in your quest...

  • —Anonymous, August 27, 2009 11:08 pm

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