Going to extremes: A Piano Master of Improv

November 6, 2018

Gabriela Montero headshot

Written by Zaide Pixley, PhD

It is a formidable task Gabriela Montero has set herself, filling the second half of her program with music composed on the spot, making decisions on the spur of the moment, guided by knowledge, experience, and hours upon hours of practice. An unusual experience today, but one that in earlier times was an essential part of a performance. Anthony Tommasini writes in The New York Times that improvisation was not a stunt to prove someone’s pianistic virtuosity, but instead a serious component of a public musician’s craft. Tonight, we see Gabriela Montero bringing that craft back to life, setting the stage with sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, both formidable improvisers in their own times.

Gabriela Montero

Montero likens improvisation to an extreme sport, like jumping off a cliff into the unknown. “For me, it’s the easiest thing to do, and the most comfortable I feel in any part of my life,” she says. She began to improvise as a child, but at age eight was advised to stop. (Trombonist Tom Evans notes that such advice is not uncommon: many young musicians are asked to choose between jazz and classical training, with the argument that one cannot do both.). Montero was encouraged to come back to improvisation by her mentor, Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. It was a happy return, she recalls: “Everything clicked and made sense, and I wanted to be on stage, I wanted to share that.” She was described in The Washington Post as a “vividly imaginative improviser, a skill that has almost disappeared among contemporary classical pianists.” Pierre van der Westhuizen finds her performances astonishing: “She is composing right before our eyes,” he says.

How does this magic happen? Not only do performers have to walk a high wire in front of an audience, they must also be meticulously prepared. To develop an intuitive sense of the possibilities presented by any theme that comes their way it takes not only practice, but a profound knowledge of past musical styles, strategies and techniques.

Beethoven’s contemporary Carl Czerny reminded his fellow pianist-composers that their improvisations needed to be crafted in an “interesting and orderly fashion.” He particularly cautioned against “eternal, wearisome, continuous repetitions of the theme through all octaves and ranges and an irrational journeying back and forth among the keys.” The strategy that Czerny outlined began with embellishment on an existing composition (as Mozart did routinely). He also included a much riskier way, in which a new piece is created based on a particular theme or themes, noting that when Beethoven did this, his extemporizations were “brilliant and astonishing in the extreme.” Montero finds that asking for themes from the audience (as did Liszt) helps her listeners gain deeper appreciation for what she is doing with the music.

Improvisors have an enormous bag of tricks at their disposal: arpeggios, scales, melodies with accompaniment, melodic and rhythmic imitation, register and texture changes, augmentation and diminution, themes backwards or upside down, tempo juxtapositions, sectional contrasts of one style to another…the list goes on. What composers can do in expanding musical ideas is amply demonstrated by the sets of variations they have left us: consider Bach’s Goldberg, Beethoven’s Diabelli, Rachmaninov’s Paganini.

With the twentieth century came more specialization and stricter adherence to a composer’s art. Improvisation was gradually ceded to emerging jazz musicians, for whom it remains absolutely essential. They have perfected the art and made it their own. Gabriela Montero is reclaiming that territory for herself – and for us.

Watch Montero Improvise

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