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In the Moment

by B.A. Nilsson on August 18, 2011

Spa Little Theater, Aug. 9
Gabriela Montero, Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra

Pairing music by Martinu and Dvorák is a safe bet. Dvorák’s unashamed, lyrical folkishness is echoed in the sometimes more austere Martinu style—although in the case of the two works juxtaposed at the beginning of one of last week’s Saratoga Chamber Music Festival concerts, there wasn’t a hint of austerity. And what the two Czech composers did with their native musical fabric was echoed in pianist Gabriela Montero’s second-half solo performance of seven improvised pieces.

Violinist Noah Geller and violist Che-Hung Chen are Philadelphia Orchestra members who brought soloist-level virtuosity to Martinu’s Three Madrigals. The first movement offered an amiable, busy, lyrical theme sung against such typical string accompaniments as double-stops and arpeggios. In the second, an Andante, mutes and trills and pizzicato chords gave the colors when the duo wasn’t joining in Everly Brothers-style close harmony. The cheerful finale used light syncopations and a Bach-like arpeggio figuration.

You can count on Dvorák for brilliant piano writing that verges on the sentimental but never gets mawkish. In his Piano Quartet No. 2, Montero mined that brilliance with a faultless technique. The four-movement work is traditionally structured, its opening allegro con fuoco characterized by a two-note motif and some soaring solo violin. Cello is featured plaintively in the ensuing lento, showing off Ohad Bar-David’s affecting voice, while the third movement begins as a bubbly waltz in which everybody dances.

The finale of the piece let everybody cut loose in a frothy dance with many virtuoso moments, a feeling of Bohemian bonhomie infecting the movement. Which made a nice segue for what the surprising second-half.

Montero, alone, asked the audience for “well-loved themes,” noting that singing said theme was part of the deal. After each suggestion, she would improvise. “Over the Rainbow” was shouted out, and thus she began.

I’m familiar with recordings she has made in which she makes up a piece as she goes along, and they sound so finished that it’s a little hard to believe that they’re born of spontaneity. Watching her embark on this task made it all make sense.

She noodled with the well-known melody, adding a harmony to those first eight bars, noodling some more, quietly, contemplatively. Then the improvisation began, a wash of melodic richness that quickly settled into a baroque-style piece in which the octave leap of the song’s first two notes bounced out frequently. Even the police-siren whine of the song’s bridge made a furtive appearance in the five-minute piece.

A staccato theme from Rhapsody in Blue inspired another five-minute improvisation, touching a flavor of Janácek by way of Rachmaninoff. But the next requester, asking for Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” wasn’t let off the hook. “You have to sing it for me,” the pianist insisted, and such is her charm that he did.

An amazing exhibition followed: Gottschalkian bombast followed by Fats Waller stride. Montero explained in an interview that she approaches each piece unprepared, the choices she makes entirely in the moment. Thus the pacing of the pieces is a matter of instinct. It made programmatic sense that the next number should be a contrast, so how appropriate to get a request for “Amazing Grace.”

“Sing it for me,” said Montero. At first one voice, then more, until most of the audience had joined in to sing a complete chorus of the song to the pianist’s gentle accompaniment. It was as magical a moment as I’ve met in a concert hall. Although Montero’s improvisational voice is sui generis, there are trails of influence to be found, and here I heard Ravel and even Chaminade.

“La vie en rose” was unexpectedly Lisztian, with a tango rhythm emerging, while “Folsom Prison Blues”—a theme that required a few audience members to support the original wise guy who couldn’t sing the thing—was Gershwin-esque.

“Take Me out to the Ball Game,” the Albert Von Tilzer chestnut, proved to be a nice coincidence as a final request. It shares with “Over the Rainbow” a leap of an octave between its first two notes, and gave a sense of full-circle as Montero teased it through a Handelian opening into what unfolded like a miniature, multi-movement work for a very satisfying concert finish.