At the moment, two Venezuelan-born performers of classical music justifiably command our attention. Gustavo Dudamel is conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar. He is also a gifted violinist. However, today is not his birthday. On this day, we celebrate the arrival of the other prominent figure in classical music to come by way of beleaguered Venezuela - Gabriela Montero.
The sculptor, Louise Nevelson, once wrote that there are three kinds of people in this life. Those who arrive knowing their purpose. Those who don't know but are searching. And those who don't know and aren't even looking, whom she regards as mostly lost souls. Gabriela Montero belongs to the first group. She was still a toddler when her innate affinity for the piano began to manifest itself. She knew she was here to play music.
It turns out that she is not only a gifted classical pianist but one who engages in the lost art of classical improvisation. Though widely practiced in the 19th century, improvising on themes in classically composed pieces has fallen out of favor in our own time. So in addition to being something of a prodigy, Gabriela has proven to be a bit of a rebel. She may be going against the grain established by critics, snobs, and defenders of sacred cows, but as the clips below make patently clear, her skillful improvisations on themes by Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Bach, and George Gershwin have endeared her to audiences around the world.
I was in the audience when she performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2011. Even though I have listened to this piece more times than I can count (I was a classical music DJ for a couple of years in Monterey, CA, and collect recordings like an addict), I felt as though I were hearing the piece for the first time. She returned to the stage for encore improvisations similar to the ones you will see below. Since she was composing on the spot - and by the way, classical improvisation is different from it's cousin, jazz improvisation - I felt that she was engaged in a conversation with the divine.
You know the phrase: Prayer is man talking to God; Intuition is God talking to man? Well, it was like that. When you watch any of the improvisations below, you will understand what I'm talking about. She offers up her developed abilities to a Muse larger than herself and receives in return, for our benefit, a direct communication that is as beautiful as it is free.
The freedom and spontaneity of her compositions is part of what makes them beautiful. And yet the harmonic relationships are grounded in the original composition, which we recognize and appreciate further as she develops them in a particular, one-of-a-kind way. Thank goodness she is not like the diva in the movie, Diva, and allows her improvisations to be recorded. They have given us several fine CD's and a delightful stable of videos, some of which are included below, along with tweets and a few other gems. Happy birthday, Gabriela. You rock!
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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