In the 18th century, all pianists who performed in public with any regularity were expected to be able to improvise pieces within traditional genres on command. Today, few classical pianists would venture to attempt such a feat even in the privacy of the rehearsal room, never mind on a stage in front of an audience. Gabriela Montero, whose 2008 album, Baroque, was nominated for a Grammy, shows no such anxiety about performing without a musical safety net. Her concerts, which often begin with elegant readings of the traditional repertoire, all resolve in an extraordinary act of musical daring in which she takes requests for themes and then improvises whole compositions from them. Montero, who will perform as part of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures Hahn Hall Series on Thursday, March 5, spoke to me last week from her home in Brooklyn.
Have you decided on any of the pieces you will be playing yet? The program for next week is still kind of open, and I will leave it like that. It could be all improvised, or it could not. I won’t decide until that night.
I saw you were at the inauguration playing with Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Yes, I was there, and I was freezing. I’m sure that none of us will ever forget it. John Williams did a great job. The theme was well-known, but what he did with it was an accurate portrayal to me of the great qualities of this specific man, Barack Obama. He captured the fact that this person is noble, humane, and he delivered the kindness that I felt coming toward everyone from Obama, which was really impressive.
Are you deliberately reviving the 18th century practice of improvisation? No. My improvisation was never intended to be a statement. The choice to pursue this way of performing was made out of a desire to find a freedom to encompass both the classical repertoire and my natural repertoire, which is the music that I create at the keyboard. In part, I think it has taken off so well with audiences because today it is so rare. I like to think that my example will lead others to find the strength to break free of the traditional parameters imposed on classical performance.
In jazz, “free improv” often refers to music that explores new concepts in tonality and harmony. Is that what you mean when you use the word “free”? To me, to be free in music requires that you step into something that is 100 percent unknown. When I am onstage, I am just letting it happen. All I know for sure is that there was a beginning, and there will be an ending. My improvisations do not intentionally break rules or defy the conventions of harmony and tonality. I’m not so interested by noise.
How did you start with the audience participation? I started to involve the audience because people didn’t believe that I was doing it! I would announce that the following piece would be fully improvised, but until I started taking these sung requests and really demonstrating that I could start from anywhere, no one believed me. Now they get it. I am not coming in with something in my head. This is the real thing.
Has touring with this type of program changed you? It has rendered me very sensitive to the audience, to energy, and to the sonic qualities of the various halls. On some nights, I feel the audience is like a door that’s wide open for me, and on others it is less so. As the evening goes on, I can feel when the audience drops the urge to find a reference and settles in to absorb what happens. This can be an exchange of pure joy. Emotions start bouncing on and off of each other.
Gabriela Montero will perform on Thursday, March 5, at 8 p.m. at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall (1070 Fairview Rd.). For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.