Celebrated improviser Gabriela Montero takes requests, just like Mozart and Beethoven did

Once upon a time, celebrated pianist such as Mozart and Beethoven not only composed music for themselves to play, they also improvised on the spot at the concerts they gave. It was expected.

Franz Liszt, possibly the greatest pianist who ever lived, would strike up melodies from the latest operas and embellish them to the delight of audience. But in the 19th century, improvising at the keyboard began to fade into obscurity. Comparatively few, among them Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein, continued to improvise for audiences.

But it didn’t die.

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero began piano studies at age 3, and she gave her first public performance at age 5. In between, at age 4, she began improvising in secret.

Montero began improvising at the piano at age 4. For many years, she kept her improvisational forays a secret. The world-famous Venezuelan pianist Martha Argerich encouraged her to do it in public.

“At that point I made the decision,” Montero told the British newspaper The Independent in 2010. “I'm a classical artist, and if the classical world shuns me because I improvise, then that's a risk I have to take, because I have to show myself exactly as I am.”

Pianist Gabriela improvises on the main theme from "Harry Potter."

Montero, who performed at the 2008 inauguration of President Barack Obama, will show herself exactly as she is in her debut appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 12-13.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger will lead the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and in the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin, at 8 p.m. in DeVos Performance Hall.

Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students for the fourth concerts of the 2017-18 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series.

The all-Tchaikovsky concert features Montero will be soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It’s one of the best-loved works in the repertoire for pianist and orchestra and for good reason. It’s the piece that pianist Van Cliburn performed in 1957 in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition.

At the height of the Cold War, just months after sending Sputnik into orbit to win the first victory in the race for space, the former Soviet Union created the international competition to prove the superiority of artists and musicians in the Communist world.

But Cliburn, a lanky, 23-year-old Texan, dazzled the Moscow audience performances of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 to capture the top prize.

Cliburn, who returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City and a cover story in Time magazine, soon recorded both concertos for RCA Victor. The album became the first classical recording in the world to sell 1 million copies, cementing both works as all-time favorites among classical music lovers.

An excerpt of Gabriela Montero rehearsing the finale of the Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1

Montero, in her native Venezuela made her concert debut with the Simon Bolívar Youth Orchestra, earning a scholarship from the Venezuelan government to study in the United States. At age 12, she won the Baldwin National Competition and AMSA Young Artist International Piano Competition, leading to a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. In 1995, she won the Bronze Medal at the 13th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

In an era of modern recordings and competitions, both of which emphasize note-perfect performances, improvisation has been elbowed out of the concert hall.

“There are so few of us that do it on the concert platform that you become an oddity,” Montero told WQXR-FM in an interview in January 2015.

Improvisation has remained an important part of her career. In her recitals and as encores with orchestras, Montero often spins elaborate creations, sometimes on a given theme, sometimes on one provided on-the-spot by a member of the audience.

Montero’s 2006 recording “Bach and Beyond” for EMI, a recording entirely of her improvisation on themes of J.S. Bach, held the top spot on the Billboard Classical Charts for several months. Two years later, her follow-up CD, “Baroque,” garnered a Grammy Award nomination.

Winner of the 2015 Latin Grammy Award for Best Classical Album, Montero was performer, composer and improviser all on the same recording, performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, contributing an original work, “Ex Patria,” and improvising live in the studio for the album.

Montero has been heard on National Public Radio’s “Performance Today” show, improvising on melodies called in by listeners and also has been profiled on CBS TV’s “60 Minutes” in December 2006.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 11:00 AM

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