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Improvisational pianist stretches music beyond classical boundaries

02.27.08
Omaha World Herald

For her concert Tuesday night at the Joslyn Art Museum, Gabriela Montero did something most classical pianists would consider insane.

She asked for requests.

Montero, a Venezuelan-born American pianist, has been making a lot of noise in recent years for her ability to improvise. So during the second half of her concert at the Joslyn's Witherspoon Concert Hall, Montero turned things over to the audience.

"Give me a lullaby, a song, even a ringtone," Montero said. "The only condition is that you have to sing the tune first, and it has to be something everybody knows."

Improvisation may be the proverbial dodo bird of classical music these days, but it used to be the genre's bread and butter. Old J.S. Bach used to jam at Zimmerman's Coffee House - the cool corner Starbucks of 18th-century Leipzig - while a prodigious 6-year-old Mozart turned aristocratic heads with his charming improvisational inventions.

But as music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries became more complex, and as musicians began venerating the scores of the great composers as if they were sacred texts, improvisation disappeared.

To her credit, Montero seems to be single-handedly improvising a comeback for this lost art. Her recital in Omaha provided a glimpse of how she does it.

Asked to play a tune, Montero first plays the melody simply, with little embellishment, to fix it in her mind. Then she launches into a dazzling flight of fancy that morphs the tune from one style to another.

She opened the Lennon and McCartney standard "Michelle" as if it were a Baroque overture. But just when you think it's about to evolve into a full-blown Baroque fugue, the piece suddenly transforms into a hot Latin number.

Montero improvised in this multicultural, multigenre fashion for the rest of the evening.

Music from Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" made the transition from Italian opera to American ragtime. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" sparkled with Lisztian Romanticism before segueing into syncopated jazz. Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3" opened with a plush, lyrical sound reminiscent of jazz pianist Bill Evans, and closed with the rhythmic verve of Chucho Valdés.

Other improvisations included a deeply felt rendition of Harold Arlen's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and a virtuoso account of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Montero opened the concert with standard repertoire. She captured both the dreamy and impetuous sides of Robert Schumann in her performance of his Carnaval, a dazzling account that nonetheless suffered in places from an out-of-tune piano.

Her performance of Alberto Ginastera's Piano Sonata No. 1 had no weaknesses and was remarkable for its energy and high drama. Not bad for a pianist who - just a couple of days ago - had slipped on the ice and injured her wrist.