Setting classical music free: Gabriela Montero

Feature photo by Colin Bell

Show on Friday, February 4, 2011, 7:30pm at Harris Theater
Address: 205 E. Randolph Drive, Chicago , IL | Cost: $45-$75 | Purchase Tickets

“I thought that everybody improvised, that was just the way everybody played the piano,” laughs Gabriela Montero when describing her unique gift of impromptu creation that became evident at a very early age. Speaking from her Boston home, Venezuelan-born Montero tells of piano lessons at age 4 and her first public performance at the age of 5. More recently, her talents were broadcast to the world when she played at President Obama’s inauguration along with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Anthony McGill.

World-renowned for dramatic and vibrant interpretations of the standard classical piano repertoire—Rachmaninoff, Bach, Chopin, Liszt—Montero is revolutionizing the classical music world by taking it to an earlier time when improvisation was one of its most admired arts. She often includes in her programs time for breathtaking classical improvisation based upon audience requests, which can range from ringtones to “Happy Birthday!”

I am curious as to what kind of mind-set is needed to create marvelous, complex sounds at an instant’s notice. Montero describes it as a different state of consciousness, although she clarifies, “I don’t want to sound New Agey. It’s not that at all! But it is like channeling: The faucet opens, and fluid creativity pours out…the music really creates itself.”

Montero also explained that improvisation was once a valued art in the classical music realm, and that Beethoven (who famously battled other pianists in heated improvisation duels) was considered a greater improviser than even a composer. The art of classical improvisation was all but lost by the mid-20th century, after the music publishing business gave musicians access to identical, mass-produced scores and the recording industry enabled audiences to become familiar with famous performances. “Over time,” sighs Montero, “we became more closed-minded instead of open-minded.”

Describing the development of her art, Montero also credits her homeland, Venezuela, which she left for the first time as an adolescent to come study music in the U.S, and affirms with great passion: “I carry my cultural roots wherever I go.” Her most recent CD, in fact, includes 29 pieces composed by Latin Americans, and its title, Solatino, is printed in the colors of the Venezuelan flag. Although she was practically born improvising, Montero does admit a bit of her talent may be the result of a cultural effect: “Of course being a Latina colors my playing, improvising, creativity—the freedom in my music. As Latinos, we have certainly had to improvise in so many parts of life, and have always had to handle surprising situations.”