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Speaking of Pianists » Blog Archive » Winging It

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    Winging It

    For the most part, programs in our upcoming PPI season represent the real core of the pianist’s repertoire, with a few departures to Medtner and Tchaikovsky.  It is some of our most remarkable music, but last year we heard some fairly offbeat performances - works by Weissenberg, Thalbert, Louie, Stravinsky, Strauss, Tcherepnin and Trenet. There are few surprises in the 2008-2009 season with one unique exception. I don’t use that adjective often, but I believe it is deserved here.

    In October, Gabriela Montero will do her part to revive a tradition from the 19th century, a rich heritage practiced by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn (one of the best) and most other performers of the era; the art of improvisation. Competitions that we would consider completely tasteless today, pitting dueling pianists against each other, were an important part of the musical life of the time.

    Take this example of the art of improvisation in the extreme, written by British pianist Charles Salaman and related by Harold C. Schonberg in his book, The Great Pianists:

    “I recall an interesting incident at a morning concert given in June, 1844, in honor of that gifted and most pathetic of famous violinists, Heinrich Ernst. Bach’s Triple Concerto in D minor was played by Moscheles, Thalberg and Mendelssohn – what a trio of giants! And each performer was to play an impromptu cadence [cadenza].  Moscheles, a famous improvisatore, led off with a fine cadence.  Thalberg followed with perhaps even more brilliant effect.  Then Mendelssohn, who had been leaning listlessly over the back of his chair while the others were playing, quietly began his cadence, taking up the threads from the subject of the concerto; then, suddenly rousing himself, he wound up with a  wonderful shower of octaves, indescribable in effect, and never to be forgotten.  The audience was so excited that the applause at the end was all for Mendelssohn.”

    Once a requirement for any successful performer, improvisation has been lost to us for the past 100 or so years, replaced by the pianist as performer rather than the composer as pianist.  Fortunately, it’s coming back, and I believe a time will come when no pianist will be a complete musician without having some degree of expertise at this skill.

    James Fenton in the Guardian (UK) quotes from Kenneth Hamilton’s excellent book,  After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford University Press, 2007).

    “The concert pianists of the Romantic period did much that would surprise a modern audience. Many of them were skilled improvisers, and improvisation on popular themes was something that their admirers insisted on hearing. If you weren’t good at improvising, you lived in dread of these ordeals. At any moment inspiration might dry up and you might make a fool of yourself.”

    Gabriela Montero does not live in dread of improvisation, and will take requests for themes from audience members (yes, that’s correct), so put on your thinking caps and gather your courage.

    “The first half I get into who Chopin was, who Schumann was,” she says, “while the second half is really my world. I have no plan, no road-map.”

    National Public Radio has featured Montero in seven segments since 2006.  Those are archived here, and have wonderful clips of improvisations sung to her by telephone callers to the program “Sing It and Wing It”.

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