The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Gabriela Montero and the Madison Symphony Orchestra show that a gift for improvisation also serves the printed score of old masterpieces well.

January 22, 2013

A REQUEST: Apparently the Overture Center and the Madison Symphony Orchestra don’t recognize that we are currently in the middle of a serious flu epidemic as measured by cases, hospitalizations and deaths. At the concert I attended Sunday afternoon, there were NO dispensers of hand sanitizers, not even in the restroom, and an usher I asked didn’t recall seeing any all weekend long. I seem to recall that the Madison Opera used them. And it makes good sense when you are sitting so close and shaking hands, touching handrails, seat armrests etc. I hope that the situation can be remedied soon. Hand sanitizer is a good, well proven public health measure.

hand sanitizer stand

By Jacob Stockinger

Venezuelan-born pianist Gabriela Montero has a very special talent, even a extraordinary gift: She can improvise in a structured, classical manner and in a variety of styles. And she does so without appearing nervous or unsure of herself, so complete is her relaxation and command of herself on-stage. She simply does not stumble.

Montero (below) demonstrated her gift in abundance during her three performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra last weekend.

Gabriela Montero

On Friday night, she improvised on the tune “On Wisconsin” and then played a free association that someone described as a Scriabin-like nocturne.

On Sunday afternoon I heard her improvise to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” (“I never heard that one before,” she quipped, after someone in the audience shouted it out and before she sounded it out and then improvised) . She also played a kind of lyrical meditation that she said was inspired by the pleasures of her stay in Madison. To my ears, it possessed a Faure-like.

Some of her improvisations – many of which you can find on best-selling recordings (below) — I really like. Some others sound to me like just a cut or two above cocktail lounge or piano-bar fare. But improvising remains a skill that too many classical musicians lack today, one that used to be a prerequisite for classical musicians and composers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Montero CD

Ironically, however, I found that Montero’s gift for improvisation served her best not in the impressive solo improvisations that she played as popular encores -– they drew standing ovations and cheers from the sizable audiences – but rather in the way she took small but exciting liberties with the printed score to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which dates back to 1798.

Montero brought the kind of zesty and improvisational life to the piano part that one imagines the young and rebellious Beethoven himself brought to his own impressive appearances in the usually staid city of Haydn and Mozart.

Her first movement was all high-energy. It emphasized counterpoint, dialogue with the orchestra and glittering and dramatic passage work, but also featured big contrasts and a particular attention to  soft-and-loud. The most glaring weakness to me was her own cadenza, which may have been intended to sound Beethoven-like but which can’t compare to the third and longest cadenza that Beethoven, himself a keyboard virtuoso, wrote for his concerto.

In Montero’s hands, the slow movement provided a beautiful foretaste of dreamy and lyrical Romanticism in its extreme slowness – almost a stasis that barely seemed to move or advance, said one keen and correct observer.

And the third and final movement, by contrast, turned into exactly the kind of fast and free-wheeling rondo that a young virtuoso like the young Beethoven (below) –- who was often known for his fast metronome markings as well as his ability to improvise –- would have appreciated. It was the fastest I ever heard that movement played, but it worked. And The Improviser also played right to the end along with the orchestra, even though the printed score calls for the orchestra to finish alone.

young beethoven etching in 1804

The concerto was bookended by two solid performances of contemporary and classical works.

The first was the opening 13-minute tone poem “blue cathedral” by Jennifer Higdon (below), an American composer who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award. She is accessible and popular, but also serious. This piece from 2000 — composed to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and to memorialize the composer’s brother, who died of cancer – has already been played by over 400 orchestras. Not many new pieces or contemporary classical composers can make that claim.

Higdon-and-Beau-Candace DiCarlo

That is impressive for so-called new music. And the brother-clarinet, sister-flute dialogue in the piece was performed superbly by the MSO. The whole work has a kind of Copland-like harmonic spaciousness or mood to it, a Gothic-like grandeur of innerness that reminded me of Monet’s Impressionist paintings of the “blue cathedral” at Rouen (below):

monet rouen cathedral in blue

The concerto finished with perfect winter fare: the Symphony No. 6 in D Major by Antonin Dvorak (below. Music by Dvorak is invariably tuneful, melodic and toe-tapping. Conductor John DeMain proved especially adept at bringing out lines and at whipping the orchestra up to a controlled frenzy in the folk dance Scherzo-Furiant (at bottom) and the brassy finale.

The MSO should play, and we should hear, more Dvorak. After all, this was the MSO’ premiere performance of a work composed back in 1880.


Of course, The Ear wasn’t alone in making sense of this infectious and ear-grabbing concert, which I found to be one of the best and most memorable of the season.

Here are links to other reviews and of course you have every right to your own your judgment or critique, which you can leave in the COMMENT section:

Here is a link to John W. Barker’s review in Isthmus:

Here is a link to Lindsay Christians review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for the “Classically Speaking” blog he wrotes for Madison Magazine:

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