One of the more amazing aspects of a classical piano concert is to see the artist play entirely from memory.
But the lack of sheet music at Gabriela Montero’s Gilmore Piano Masters Series performance on Thursday night was, in part, for a very different reason: the entire second half was fully improvised.
Montero took tunes and themes suggested by the audience at Kalamazoo’s Chenery Auditorium and played totally new pieces based on them. While common in the age of Mozart and Beethoven, it is today a rarity in the classical world and a first for the Gilmore.
“For me, improvisation is something that happens in the moment,” Montero said from the stage. “I have no plan, no structure, no template. ... Something will happen that will never happen again. In fact, when it happens, I don’t even know what’s happening.”
Montero played five improvised pieces. The first suggestion was “I’ve Got A Gal in Kalamazoo.” An audience member sang it — to wild applause — and Montero played a bit on the piano. A chorus of people sang it back, correcting part of the melody.
“Oh, it’s a Kalamazoo song, of course I don’t know it,” she said with a laugh, before going into a Bach-inspired rendition of the Glenn Miller classic. Everyone listening was mesmerized, wide-eyed, not knowing where it would go and delighted at each turn.
Later on, Montero played an improvisation on Jingle Bells that took the Christmas tune, put it through a blender and created variations in several styles, removing all the holiday connotations and made it something new. It was unusual, but incredibly exciting, to have the interaction and connection between Montero and the audience.
Montero opened her recital with Sonata No. 10 by Mozart, followed by Sonata No. 21 (“Waldstein”) by Beethoven. If the mark of a good performer is that they can take a well-known composition and play it in a way that is like hearing it for the first time, Montero did just that with Mozart and Beethoven.
The highlight of the evening was the middle improvisation section about her home country of Venezuela. As she spoke about the struggles and oppression its citizens face, it was clear how important this is for her, and that emotion transferred seamlessly into her music.
The Venezuela improvisation started slow and built up with intensity of someone opening their heart. It was somber and mournful, but also comforting, an alternative national anthem of sorts that is more a reflection of what’s happening in the country than an official military march. It connected with the audience in ways headlines and news reports can never achieve. It was, as Montero said, the best way for people to understand what Venezuelans are feeling.
Having played piano since she was a child, Montero said improvising “comes from somewhere else, I call it my musical playground. It’s the way I talk to the piano, talk about my life, my experiences, my feelings, my country, what we’ve gone through, and it’s the most intimate way of music making that I can share with you. It’s something the comes from very deep inside.”
The two halves of the concert showcased a talented pianist who not only learns and interprets the works of the greats, but can take her decades of knowledge, skill and practicing and create something entirely new.
If the first section was an example of what makes classical music so great, the second half was a glimpse at what it can be in the future: democratic, as Montero describes it, accessible, exciting and a whole lot of fun.