Gabriela Montero's first all-improvisation concert in Seattle showcased her monster technique, thrilling tone and ability to channel great musical spirits of the past. Her Meany Hall concert is reviewed by Sumi Hahn.

Share story

Concert Review |

How appropriate that pianist Gabriela Montero’s first, all-improvisation concert in Seattle took place two nights before Halloween. While many aspects of her keyboard skills can be described with the usual terms applied to world-class classical pianists — monster technique and thrilling tone — the two words that insistently come to mind when she extemporizes are “spooky” and “otherworldly.”

No mere mortal could have transformed the cartoonish theme of the “Flintstones” into such a shimmering evocation of Ravel and Satie. Or so convincingly conjured the manic ragtime rhythms of Scott Joplin via Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

In her program notes, Montero describes how she seems to “inhabit a white void” when she improvises. The music, she writes, comes from that place and moves through her.

Indeed, it is impossible to listen to her without speculating that she is medium of the highest order, channeling spirits of long-dead composers — mostly Classical and Romantic — sometimes in lightening-speed succession.

During her 70-minute program at Meany Hall, Montero offered 10 improvisations. The first piece of the evening — a gorgeous creature part Debussy, part Gershwin — was inspired by her reading of Pablo Neruda’s poem, “I Like You When You’re Quiet.” A leitmotif from “Carmen” turned into a Bach-like invention. “Ode to Joy” was reworked into a fast and furious tango. Her method was always the same: She stated her given melody simply, and then paused for a few seconds over the keys, as if to give the impending music time to incorporate and take over her body.

The quicksilver results were never predictable and constantly shifted. Something that started out Classical would bloom into a Romantic flower; a spare, modern line might become cluttered by an odd Baroque trill. Not all of the creations were worth keeping, but there quite a few astonishing moments that begged to be recorded for posterity, such as the “Flintstones” improvisation.

The evening concluded with a piece inspired by “Instantes,” a poem that is often attributed to Jorge Luis Borges’ (its authorship is a matter of controversy) and is famous for the line “If I could live my life again, in the next one I would try to make more mistakes.” This simple, contemplative creation was entirely left-handed, and seemed to signal a possible new direction for Montero’s improvisations, one that sounds decidedly contemporary and personal and relies less upon summoning ghosts from the past.

Sumi Hahn: