It was the French Classical Music channel (France Musique) that made me discover the name of Gabriele Montero. A great classical pianist from Venezuela (if a person like Marta Argerich says “I have rarely come across a talent like Gabriela’s. She is a unique artist.”, well, that means something). But what really caught my attention is that Montero does something very rare: she does classical music improvisation.
Musical improvisation has a strange history in Western classical music. There was a time when it dominated classical music: Bach was considered to be incredible improviser at the keyboard, and so were most of his contemporary musicians like Händel or Telemann. In fact, the tradition claims that some of Bach’s keyboard pieces are just the write down of his improvisations (the best known example is the “The Musical Offering” which includes a three-voice fugue for keyboard and which was probably the improvisation of Bach when he visited Frederick II of Prussia). And, in fact, even when playing “published” music a baroque artist was not only allowed to improvise a little bit here and there, but it was, sort of, expected from him.
But this tradition has disappeared. (I am not talking about jazz here. That is different.) Today a classical musician is supposed to follow the notes, the dynamics, the speed, etc, exactly as written down by the composer. Of course, this is not 100% true, musicians do have a great freedom of expressiveness, otherwise any machine would do. But it is certainly not allowed to deviate from the notes as written down in the music. Improvisation is not expected by the public, rarely practiced by musicians, not taught at conservatories. Actually, if an artist still does it, the “established” community of musicians will very often consider this as not “serious”, not worthy of a real classical musician… It requires a certain guts for a serious performer to do it in public.
Well… and Gabriela Montero has the guts. And that is why it is worth remembering her name. There are a bunch of videos on YouTube; maybe the one I prefer is a baroque style improvisation on Debussy’s Claire de Lune. Quite amazing: improvising counterpoint on the fly… She also has some CD-s where she recorded improvisations she made on Bach tunes (“Bach and Beyond”) or Baroque tunes in general. If you are interested in classical music but you also want to hear something a bit… unusual, then it is worth checking out!
B.t.w., she also has a web site (of course 🙂 where one can submit her a tune, she would improvise on it and send back the result in MP3. I might check this out sometime…