Gabriela Montero: Beyond Interpretations

In centuries past, improvisation was a common practice in music-making; a composer’s score was secondary to the performer’s skill and imagination. Performers improvised from figured bass lines and understood the stock musical phrases and cadences that worked. There was also the practice of ‘fantasising’ at the piano in salon settings – to improvise extended works in free form. Nowadays, improvisation is virtually non-existent in classical music and we accept jazz as the ‘improvised’ music, often forgetting that the composers we worship today were also known as virtuoso improvisers in their time. 

Gabriela Montero is a classical pianist set apart by her distinct ability to improvise. Despite improvising from a young age, Montero had a strict upbringing in classical music and resolved to play standard piano repertoire. It was only after the insistence of legendary pianist Martha Argerich that Montero began to improvise in public, performing exciting renditions of canonised repertoire and asking audiences for suggestions and requests. Her improvisations move freely between Mozart figurations, Latin jazz, and Baroque counterpoint. She is both an impressive novelty and a throwback to the past practice of improvisation. 

Montero’s ability to improvise and compose is a challenge to the rigid expectations of concert halls today. Professional musicians of the past were expected to know how to improvise, compose, and perform to a virtuosic level—it was common for composers to premiere their own concertos, conduct the orchestra from the piano, and still improvise themselves. But in the nineteenth century, composers (and their compositions) became memorialised as works of unquestionable greatness, and performers were expected to follow the score without deviation. The compositions became fixed—the notes, the rhythms, the articulations, and dynamic markings were now carved into stone, never to be changed. 

On July 30 of last year, Montero became the first woman since 1960 to premiere her own concerto at Carnegie Hall. In the Stern Auditorium, she performed her Piano Concerto No.1 (Latin) with great rigour. Montero takes pride in her Venezuelan roots and is known for speaking out against the political situation in her home country. In the program notes, she described the process of writing her concerto: “My aim was to combine European formalism and the informality of Latin America’s rich, rhythmical identity … I set out to describe the complex and often contradictory character of Latin America, from the rhythmically exuberant to the forebodingly demonic.”

The concerto began with pensive dissonance in the piano. Accompanied by the harp, the piano part quickly transformed into a percussive mambo. The piano part was frantic, laden with complex patterns and syncopated left-hand sections that seemed to struggle and clash with the orchestra before returning to the foreboding calm of the opening theme. The rest of the concerto was filled with Latin dance rhythms, percussive dissonances and nostalgic melodies. Montero wrote: 

“When most people think of Latin America, they imagine a place where life, like the music, is full of rhythm, sensuality and primitive energy. ..But there are dark shadows over it all that can stop us from seeing clearly. These are the shadows of violence and corruption that have prevented some Latin American countries from reaching their full potential. This is the story I wanted to tell; this is why my Latin Concerto shows the complexities of South American life…They are not always agents of their own destiny.”

Montero returned to the stage for an encore. To a great cheer from the audience, she draped a Venezuelan flag over the piano. What happened next was at once both utterly novel and reminiscent of the music in the past. At the piano, Montero addressed the audience and asked for a theme on which to improvise. A few people called out Venezuelan songs. She chose the most recognisable: ‘Happy Birthday.’ Playing the melody in her left hand, she harmonised the theme with quick syncopated chords. She then converted the theme into a minor key, weaving the melody through a baroque-style fugue. Her delicate figurations soon morphed into hand crossovers, alternating between major and minor melodic fragments, before growing into large, Beethovenian chords, eventually winding down with gentle figurations in the style of Mozart. Here, Montero demonstrates how improvisation operates within the context of prior learning–she relies on a pre-existing structure and then extemporises on top of it.

In 2006, Montero released Bach and Beyond with EMI classics.. The album features improvisation on themes by Bach, but there is nothing Baroque about the music itself—rather, replaced with classical styles and contemporary feels of a later era. For example, her ‘Aria’ from the Goldberg Variations is the most unexpected out of the selection—the descending melody is but a grey figure in the distance, barely quoted before melting into impressionist harmonies reminiscent of Debussy. The melody is then transformed through Prokofiev figurations, with child-like and irregular melodies, even quoting along the way ‘Surrey with a Fringe on Top’ from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! Her unusual diversions in style may feel anachronistic, but fantasies and improvisations in previous centuries were often structured as potpourris with various musical styles and topics, including references to popular songs. 

The improvisation after ‘Toccata in D minor’ is perhaps her most successful, segueing naturally into bossa nova rhythms and dissonant tone clusters. While Montero claims that she has no knowledge of harmony or composition, it’s hard to ignore the inherent structure in her playing. If improvisation can be seen as composing in real-time, there is a pleasing sense of form and direction beneath her loosely connected surfaces. 

Pre-existing forms often guide the improviser’s musical ideas. But they also provide a framework through which the listener can follow and appreciate the playing. In the case of Montero’s improvisations on themes by Bach, the original compositions are vehicles for her own creations, going far beyond interpretation.