Improvisation is a backbone of the arts. Making it up as you go along is a stalwart of theater and jazz, and it had a huge place in classical music a couple of hundred years ago, when improvising performers worked their magic in well-known forms, Beethoven and Mozart among them.
Although there are contemporary artists who have brought back the technique of making up cadenzas (pianist Robert Levin chief among them), Gabriela Montero has made improvisation an essential part of her concert appearances.
The Venezuela-born pianist will make her Saratoga Performing Arts Center (Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs) debut this week with two performances. First is a recital Tuesday evening in the Spa Little Theater (Aug. 9, 8 PM) as part of the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival, then she returns two nights later (Aug. 11, 8 PM) to play Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the amphitheater under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero.
Speaking from her home near Boston, the pianist explained that her Tuesday appearance, like her other recitals, will be in two parts. “The first half tends to be traditional repertory, while the second half is completely improvised.” And, as with theatrical improv, her creations are truly spontaneous. “I ask a member of the audience to sing a theme I can use, which they then can follow in the improvisation. It’s a wonderful way to create a sense of access. Usually, I’m transforming themes that are well-loved, so it becomes very interactive and unpredictable. And very collaborative.”
Montero made her concert debut when she was five; three years later, she played a Haydn concerto with the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. During a fast-burgeoning career, she has gone on to perform with the world’s major orchestras and conductors, and is a frequent chamber-music collaborator, especially at Martha Argerich’s annual Lugano Festival in Switzerland.
In fact, it was Argerich who suggested that Montero include improvisation in her programs. Montero describes the revered pianist’s encouragement as life-changing, but characteristic of Argerich: “She’s an incredible artist, an incredible woman, and an incredible friend. I was just working with her again in Switzerland and it was wonderful.”
A number of Montero’s improvisations have been recorded, particularly on her album Baroque and the Latin-themed Solatino. But she notes that her musical language has changed even since those discs were made. “It’s become more complex, but at the same time I feel very comfortable—there’s a sense of incredible joy that the audience demonstrates.”
What makes it more impressive is that Montero never pursued formal study of harmony or other elements of music theory. “What I do comes from non-intellectual sources. There’s a logic and intelligence behind it, but it’s not like a ‘two plus two equals four’ kind of formula. I’m afraid that if I studied it, it would result in making too many intellectual connections—I’d start to think too much about it. And if you do think in an improvisation, you have the danger of repeating yourself—you’ll establish too many patterns and safe landing places. To me, it’s a white canvas that I paint differently every time.”
Also on the Tuesday program are works by Martinu and Dvorák. The orchestra concert is an all-Russian affair with the Rachmaninoff in the first half. About that composer, Montero says, “I feel very close to his works. I can’t think of anything of his that I don’t love on a visceral level. In fact, I only play works by composers whom I feel that way about. It’s more honest that way.” Should she be called upon for an encore after the piece, she’ll offer another taste of her improvisational prowess, again building a spontaneous work on an audience-suggested theme.
The program will conclude with Prokofiev’s spectacular Symphony No. 5.
For more information about these performances, see the Night & Day listings and visit spac.org.