Monday, October 27, 2008

Montero takes requests and improvises with élan

Gabriela Montero has a new twist to the piano recital format. The Venezuelan-born virtuoso loves to take requests from the audience and then improves a piece based on the suggestion. So, Montero bantered with listeners and responded at the keyboard in her own unique way at the Newmark Theatre on Sunday afternoon in Portland as the second artist to appear this season in the series sponsored by Portland Piano International.

More akin to performing in a salon rather than a hushed recital hall, this all-improv concert (recital isn’t the right word) started with Montero, microphone in hand, explaining why he enjoys improvisation. She told us how she regularly performs 50 to 60 concerts a year (mostly in Europe) and that, while gratifying, the constant grind leaves her feeling a little like a well-trained monkey. At an extremely young age, she liked to improvise on the piano and found that improvisation is still a terrific way for her to find more meaning in music and achieve intimacy with the audience.

In order to prepare us for how her improvisations work, Montero read a poem by Pablo Neruda entitled “I like for you to be still,” and then turned to the keyboard and played a very pretty and lyrical piece that she made up on the spot.

Following a polite round of applause, Montero turned to her listeners and asked some one or more of us to sing a fairly well known tune, and she would then improvise. Someone declaimed “The Promenade theme from Pictures at an Exhibition.” Another person sang the phrase, which Montero repeated on the Steinway. After she composed herself for a moment, she started playing a delightful Haydnesque minuet. That put a smile on most people’s lips, and they responded to the piece with enthusiasm.

Next, someone demanded Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and the tune emerged from the audience. After trying it out in several keys, Montero became quiet and then gave us a flowery Liszt-like fantasy. Somewhere along the way she changed everything to a Latin-salsa or tango – which was very playful and also earned a boisterous appreciation.

Montero then took a “Happy Birthday” suggestion and put a bouncy honky-tonk ragtime spin on it. Afterwards came the Shaker hymn tune, “Simple Gifts,” which was unfamiliar to her. Yet again, after trying it out in several keys and tempos, Montero took a brief moment of reflection and dived into a improvisation that began simply and gradually become more complex. I thought that I head a little bit of Mussorgsky-ness in it and a lot of charm.

For the next-to-the-last number, audience members abandoned singing anything at all and shouted out everything from “Greensleaves” to “God Bless America.” A loud voice rang out with “La Cocoracha,” Montero didn’t have to wait for anyone to sing a note. She gave us lively rendition of that Latin-American tune. She then ended the concert by reading Jorge Luis Borges’ “Instant,” a poem about living one’s life differently, and playing a final, heartfelt improvisation.

Montero’s performance was more in the line of what Mozart or Beethoven or Liszt could do. They could improvise at the drop of a tune in a bucket and that was not big deal to them. It’s unfortunate that so much of music-making in the classical world has lost this talent. Of course, organists, especially in Europe have kept the tradition of improvisation at the forefront of their artistry. It’s great to experience a pianist of Montero’s caliber reinvigorate improvisation. I have heard Robert Levin and Jeffrey Kahane improvise in concert. That kind of playing can do a world of good – especially in connecting with younger audiences. I hope that Montero can return to Portland some day soon to provide another round of impulsive music.

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