On a whim with some old flair

The Austrailian

THE applause was strong but slightly restrained. Then Gabriela Montero returned for an encore of a different kind. It was Wednesday night at the Sydney Opera House, and the glamorous Venezuelan pianist had just finished a performance of Grieg's famous Piano Concerto in A minor.

After a quick word with the first violinist, she sat at the piano and turned to the audience to speak. She said she liked to improvise, but first she needed a theme. "Twinkle, twinkle little star," came a voice from the audience. Montero smiled. She turned to the keyboard and played a five-minute variation on the melody, a performance that included fast baroque runs, gentle lyricism and plenty of changes of dynamics.

At the end, the crowd roared its approval.

"It's incredible what happens," Montero says the next morning, still jet-lagged after arriving in Australia on Tuesday. "It's what I've been doing for the last few years, and it's really what people love, expect and are excited about. I love to do it and so it's part of my concert program now."

Montero stands out in the classical music world with her passion for improvisation. It's a lonely talent in many respects, with few of her contemporaries willing or able to follow her lead. The art of improvisation, after all, has long been lost to classical music; the skill required for on-the-spot musical creation is largely the domain of jazz musicians.

But Montero harks back to an older tradition, when great artists such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart would improvise regularly during performances. She is keen, therefore, to break out of the "restrictive side of the classical world", and says audiences have responded to her innovations with encouraging levels of enthusiasm.

"Improvisation is just complete freedom for me," she says. "I've heard that some people find it terrifying. But for me it's liberating. I absolutely enjoy the interest and the joy that creating music on the spot seems to evoke, and I connect to that."

Montero says she has been improvising since she was a child, making the process "absolutely normal" and familiar to her. But only recently did she develop the courage to take her talent to a wider audience, having been dissuaded from improvisation by her teacher when she was a young musician. But when Argentine pianist Martha Argerich encouraged Montero to embrace her passion, she didn't look back.

"For many years I did not improvise in public because I had a teacher in the US who I was with for 10 years who basically demeaned it and told me it was worthless. So I kept it to myself basically. But when I played for Martha in 2001, she was so incredibly over the moon and enthusiastic. She said: 'Gabriela, why aren't you doing this in public? People need to see this, it's who you are.' And it is a very big part of who I am."

A seasoned performer who has appeared with symphony orchestras across the world, Montero has incorporated improvisation into her concerts in recent years. Her first recording combined Chopin and Liszt with improvised passages, while her acclaimed 2006 CD, Bach and Beyond, featured improvisations on themes by the baroque composer. In concert, she likes to combine written compositions with improvised performances towards the end of the evening.

Asking audience members to suggest themes is a deliberate strategy of inclusion. She says many audiences had "no clue" what she was doing when she first started improvising, so expanding on a simple theme helped provide a frame of reference.

"It meant people became involved and it was a joint process. It gave them the ability to be able to follow that theme and see it going through a journey," she says.

But she dismisses any suggestion that her efforts have little more than novelty value.

"It's not a circus act, it's not a gimmick," she says. "It's a real musician playing real music. I'm just doing what the old guys did."

Fans of Montero have compared her style with that of Keith Jarrett, one of the world's leading improvising musicians. But any similarities between the two pianists are relatively superficial.

It's almost impossible, for example, to imagine the prodigiously talented and demanding Jarrett asking his audience for suggestions about what he should play during a concert. His solo performances, after all, involve attempts to create music from nothing, in absolute silence. And as Montero points out, Jarrett is best known for his work inside the jazz tradition. "It's a very different language because my improvisations are mainly classical," Montero says. "Sometimes I like to have a little bit of fun with ragtime or latin, but the bulk of my improvisations are very, very classical."

Montero, on her first tour of Australia, saysshe hopes her improvisations will help break down some barriers in classical music and give others the confidence to try a similarapproach. Indeed, the response to herperformances - as the excited Opera House crowd showed on Wednesday - has been overwhelming.

"There will always be a few very conservative people who will turn their noses up, but 99 per cent of people are just overjoyed to see a process that is unpredictable, and creative, that is real and different," she says.

"When I play the written repertoire, I invest every ounce of energy and passion and thought into it. But it's different with improvisation. When I'm improvising, the music is something that guides me. It just kind of goes through me."