It is often said that music expresses that which cannot be put into words. On very rare occasions one encounters musicians whose performances and talents render an attempt to describe what they do as futile and completely inadequate. Such is the case with pianist Gabriela Montero. She was seen by hundreds of millions of people playing in a quartet along with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Anthony McGill, at the inauguration of President Obama; this concert at Duke's Reynolds Auditorium was her first public appearance since that momentous occasion. Her residency at Duke University, which included a masterclass the previous Thursday, was sponsored by Duke Performances. Originally her concert was to be a standard fare piano recital, but it was announced about a week ago that the entire program was to consist of improvisations on themes presented to Ms. Montero by the audience during the concert – not beforehand. This resulted in an evening that can best be described as the musical equivalent of the burning bush.
Musical improvisation – the ability instantaneously and simultaneously to create and play a coherent musical composition – was once a required facet of a total musical package, but now, for nearly all classically trained musicians (except for some organists), that skill has disappeared from the musical landscape like the dinosaurs. The early 20th century saw the resurgence of this mysterious and wonderful skill with the development of jazz. The ability to improvise on harmonic changes and melodies became an indispensable and expected skill. Montero makes it clear that she is not a jazz musician, and her creations generally do not sound anything like one. This absolutely stunning and musically miraculous skill of Montero seems to be as inexplicable and nearly alchemistic to her as to the listener. In her own words, "When I improvise, I seem to inhabit a white void, and that is where my music comes from. I can't stress enough how the process that these improvisations go through (and myself!) is as much a puzzle to me as it is to everyone who asks me 'How do you do it?'"
Montero came out and explained the ground rules of this concert, the likes of which most people had never experienced. Quite simply, anyone in the audience could just name and/or sing a musical theme – anything at all. The first was the lush 18th variation from the Rachmaninov variations on Paganini's 24th violin caprice. Montero first played the unadorned melody, then briefly gathered her thoughts (or contacted the musical gods!) and launched into a nearly unimaginable display of spontaneous creation. Someone walking in would have thought that this was a newly discovered composition by Bach as she weaved fully developed fugues out of this romantic theme.
It quickly became obvious that despite her supernatural gifts, Montero is down-to-earth, friendly, and unpretentious. The initial reticence and shyness of the audience soon changed to an "American Idol" atmosphere as people were freely singing out all sorts of themes. The next two stayed decidedly traditional with improvisations of the rondo movement of Mozart's "Turkish" piano sonata, followed by the main theme of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. It was quite interesting to hear her creation based on "Over the Rainbow" since this was an opportunity to hear an American standard and the different ways a jazz pianist might handle this as opposed to Montero (she is one-of-a-kind so there is no category for her).
The rather simplistic and somewhat insipid theme from "Star Wars" was magically transformed into a Debussy-like panorama that cemented the fact that we were all witnessing a phenomenon that defied worldly explanation. She then accepted my request for the opening theme of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." But it was the next one – the Habanera from Carmen – that almost made you want to prick her finger to see if she bled and was human. She began by using this sensuous and sinewy theme as the subject of a grand fugue and then took us on a magical tour through nearly every musical style leading up to a stride piano and Joplin-like style. It ended with a nod to her native Venezuela with infectious latin rhythms. The evening ended with the appropriately fantastic imagery of "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie" of Dean Martin's hit "That's Amore."
Even without this "white void" gift of improvisation, Montero possesses the epitome of fluid keyboard technique. Her upper body remains nearly motionless as her arms, hands, and fingers do the bare minimal motion to get the job done. She truly gives new meaning to the term "effortless technique." When experiencing a concert by great artists, musicians often vacillate between feelings of great inspiration to utter hopelessness that they could ever play even remotely like that. This was different – tonight we truly witnessed a musical miracle. The artist herself acknowledges the mystery of it all, so whatever your beliefs may be, one thing is clear: something is playing through her.