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Spot-on at creating on the spot

Gabriela Montero has a gift for improvising, be it Bach, soap opera themes, pop tunes or nursery rhymes. She even takes audience suggestions.

August 26, 2007|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

Audiences at the Hollywood Bowl can expect a little more bang for their buck when the "Tchaikovsky Spectacular" lights up the Cahuenga Pass next weekend. Adding to the annual event's signature pyrotechnics, fiery, unconventional pianist Gabriela Montero will be making her Bowl debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

This rising -- and eyebrow-raising -- classical music star, 37, is scheduled to play Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 on the all-Tchaikovsky program. And as an encore, the Venezuelan-born American transplant promises to offer her controversial trademark: improvisation at the keyboard, common to classical music in past centuries but now rare.

No one questions Montero's credentials as a master classical pianist -- "astonishingly brilliant," said the Chicago Tribune of her debut CD of works by Chopin, Falla, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and others. "It's what happens between the notes, the way she grippingly characterises everything she plays, that constantly arrests the listener's attention," said a BBC Music Magazine concert review.

But it's Montero's unusual gift for often Baroque-flavored improvisations on any theme imaginable -- "I've never been stumped," she says -- that has garnered the most attention, including a "60 Minutes" segment in December and interviews on National Public Radio. Her second CD -- the all-improvised "Bach and Beyond," released last year -- remained among Billboard's top 10 classical albums for months.

The "most startling aspect of her artistry emerges," said the Wall Street Journal, ". . . when she tosses aside the printed page and spontaneously invents something never heard before."

"No matter how complex the variations," wrote the New York Times, "the original melody always emerges triumphantly from a musical tapestry that might weave blues, jazz, tango and Debussy into a multihued framework."

Such recognition is a vindication of sorts for Montero, a striking, youthfully hip presence.

Her gift is so much a part of who she is, so instinctive, she says, that she avoids analyzing it. "I've never studied theory, harmony, composition, nothing. When I improvise, I don't think. It's an open space where there aren't any rules and there's no architecture to rely on." But her ability to play extemporaneously didn't always win her praise.

Born in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, Montero was an infant prodigy who was picking out melodies with one finger on a two-octave toy piano before she was a year old. At age 8, she was soloing on national television; that same year, she received a scholarship from the government to study in the United States and with her supportive parents, both nonmusicians, moved to Miami.

There, however, her improvisations, her greatest joy, were disparaged, she says -- so much so that after leaving Florida at not quite 18, she didn't touch the piano for two years.

"I was really struggling with everything that I had lived through in those years, and with my own reasons for being a musician," she says. "I had such an early beginning in music that for many years, I really didn't question at all what I would do. But then things weren't so clear, and they became less and less clear as I got older."

Montero trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and won the Bronze Medal in the prestigious Chopin International Piano Competition while in her 20s, but music was an on-and-off thing for many years, she says.

"I had my first child, and then I was wandering around life like a bit of a gypsy," living in eight countries and making some three dozen moves. (She now lives in a town outside Boston with her two daughters, ages 4 and 10.)

Although Montero became an in-demand concert pianist during that nomadic time, she felt incomplete as an artist until six years ago, when -- loosened up by a glass of wine or two -- she played a life-changing impromptu concert for celebrated pianist Martha Argerich.

The great Argentine artist has mentored other noted young musicians -- among them Ingrid Fliter, the first woman to receive the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award, who made her Hollywood Bowl debut last year. Argerich took her admiration of Montero's classical improvisations public, urging the younger woman to fully pursue her gift.

And when Argerich spoke, people listened and sought Montero out. "From the very first moment after that meeting, I started to get calls," she says. "Somehow it focused me -- I had no choice."

Listeners call the tune

Finding acceptance for performing improvisations in tandem with a classical career brought the balance that Montero had missed as an artist, she says.

It also renewed her confidence. To counter suggestions that her improvisations were less than spontaneous, she began asking concertgoers for suggestions, instantly weaving soap opera themes, pop tunes and nursery rhymes into flowing original works remarkable for their complexity and far-ranging classical references.

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