February 05, 2011

Classical improvisation is not an oxymoron (ask Gabriela Montero)

“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.

Will — February 07, 2011

"Split-personality concert" is a great description. I was surprised by how jarring the transition between the two portions of the concert seemed. Montero's personality seemed to change — suddenly the silent, contained, and slightly uppity pianist was laughing and teasing the audience. It was like someone flipped a switch. And, though I can’t put my finger on just why, something about her introduction to that improv portion struck me as strange. She felt the need to explain not just how the interaction would work but also why she was doing it. Perhaps it made me feel less a partner in the music-making and more of a prop. "And now for my next act, I will interact directly with the audience."

Then again, I felt I had a case of split personality, too. I was thrilled at first at the energy in the room as the audience revved up, but by the third time the woman next to me yelled her request for Beyonce’s Single Ladies I was ready for some old fashioned quiet reverence.

Jon Silpayamanant — February 20, 2011

Improvisation is slowly making a comeback. My cello professor at DePauw University has been teaching improv there since I was an undergrad in the early 90s--he was heavily featured in a Wall Street Journal piece in '08 (which also talks about Ms. Montero: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB12278119... ) and is probably one of biggest reasons I've spent the past 15 years or so incorporating improvisation of some sort or another in my performances.

Janis — February 23, 2011

Full disclosure: I'm a massive, massive Montero fan. I could deadhead around after her if I had the money and time.

Anyhow, this comment you made struck me:

"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."

The musical equivalent of a seance, you mean. No wonder the audience is so still and silent at most of these performances -- you need to keep completely quiet and still and rest your fingertips on the tabletop for it to work. It's the opposite of live music -- dead music.

Will, I think she felt the need to explain herself only because it IS so unusual, and she knows it. She went through a long time in her life when her love and gift for improv was denigrated, almost to the point where she gave up music completely. We still live in a world where audiences didn't believe that she was improvving until a friend of hers suggested to her that she ask the audience for a theme. Before then, she would say, "I'm going to improv now," and reviewers would flat-out not believe her. Breaking the 4th wall was the only way she found of enabling people to even understand what they were hearing.

Mark — July 19, 2011

I find it very refreshing that a well-known concert pianist takes a stand for what she believes in, regardless of how the music community feels. How did we arrive at this point where classical music became so stuffy and pretentious? Classical pianists today do not resemble the great keyboardists and composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Historical evidence abounds regarding improvisation and the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, for example. Improvisation was a great part of their repetoire, and they were expected to improvise on themes given to them by the audience. This is what makes a musician great. It is what makes music art. I do not consider contemporary piano concerts with respect when improvisation is left out.

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