English profiles

Amsterdam, 18 March 2023

It was quite special to interview Gabriela Montero in one of the dressing rooms of the Concertgebouw, with singer Thomas Hampson practising in the next room. She also played a message on her mobile telephone with Martha Argerich whistling 'Happy birthday'....

Willem Boone (WB): I have a few questions about your amazing improvisation skils. I guess you are known as the pianist who improvises so well, is there perhaps a danger that you could be type cast or pigeonholed, while you are also a pianist with a huge repertoire and who will be performing one of the old warhorses this week? Does that bother you?
Gabriela Montero (GM): It doesn’t bother me, because it’s an expression of the whole musical world that I live in. That has always been my way of communicating. I think it’s a shame though that we live in a time when it’s almost bizarre for a classical artist to be an improviser. It should be more like a spontaneous composer, because it’s closer to spontaneous composition than improvisation. It’s a shame that we have to use labels to categorise different shades: what we do and what we are. In reality, it’s just me being myself 100%. The fact that I play Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Brahms and other composers and I do improvisations may be classical or not, depending on the day. I think it’s more a reflection of going back in time, to the 18th and 19th century, than of me doing anything strange; because it’s really something that belongs to the past. I love to do it; I love to see how the public gets so excited about something so spontaneous. I guess maybe I need a bigger box (laughs), that would be a solution!

WB: And when did you discover this talent?
GM: I always did it, since I was a little girl. I didn’t know it was a talent, it was just a way that I talk with the piano. It’s what I call ‘my musical diary’, it’s how I express my stories, my feelings, what’s happened to my country, everything. It’s a way of story telling. 

WB: If you play an improvise something today, would you be able to reproduce it tomorrow?
GM: No, I wouldn’t even be able to reproduce it immediately after, because I’d have no idea what I did. I have to listen to it to know what I did. 

WB: I always wonder whether there is always ‘something’: do you never run out of inspiration?
GM: No, because it’s really something that is born of itself; it happens by itself. I play the first notes and it’s like a domino effect. It’s always there; it’s like opening the tap in the sink. There is always a source of creativity.

WB: You are never scared when you have a jetlag?
GM: No, because, it’s not an intellectual process for me, it’s something that goes beyond that. It’s also another part of my brain. There was a big study done on my brain on how it behaves when I improvise versus when I play a piece of memorized music. This was done at the John’s Hopkins hospital in the US with Dr Charles Lin who is a leading neurologist and it became a published paper in science magazines. What they found is that, when I play the normal repertoire, all the parts light up in the brain, so musicians are lighting up. But when I improvise, I use a different part of my brain, my visual  cortex. That’s what I use to improvise, even though I don’t see anything, even though I have no idea how this happens, but there seems to be a very strange and special connection that happens between one part of my brain and the other, when I switch from playing repertoire to improvisation. That’s very much how it can be explained scientifically what it means when I say that I get out of the way when I improvise. There are literally parts of the brain that no longer fonction when I play my repertoire, and there is the other part of the brain, the visual cortex, which goes crazy and is fully awake. 

WB: And that’s only when you improvise?
GM: Yes, indeed.
WB: And your eyes are more active you said?
GM: No, I don’t see anything different, I don’t look at anything different… It’s the visual cortex that is not anything that I do, it’s just a part that is activated. 

WB: Does it help you if you get lost in a classical score? Can you improvise your way out?
GM: Well, I could improvise a whole entire, different piece! It could be a helpful tool, yes, but nowadays I also use the iPad. Because I have this crazy neurology, I don’t want to have to think about the nap (?) 

WB: Can anybody learn to improvise? I had a really good piano teacher and she also taught improvisation. I once interviewed her and she said: ‘Yes, provided you have the desire to learn it and you are open to it. There is creativity in any person, but more some are more gifted than others.’ Do you agree?
GM: It’s more like a door that is either open or not; I don’t think you can teach it, because it’s a paradox. You can’t teach something that doesn’t exist, if you teach something, it becomes formulas, patterns, something you refer to, which is already prepared. I think improvisation in the purest sense of the word is something that comes out of nothing, but I think there is value in going beyond the score, the notes. For anyone who wants to develop an even more personal relationship with composers, through your own creativity. I think it’s very valuable to give students and musicians a bigger view of what is possible in music and that’s something that has to do with opening up to creativity and also seeing the score as a map to story telling. That’s something much more personal.

WB: Sometimes you hear this cliche that you can improvise if you know a few chords. My teacher said that there is more to it: you also need to have a beautiful tone, timing, sense of rythm…
GM: I think it’s composition. The thing is in my case that I never studied harmony or theories; that’s not the way I work, it’s not on my brain. It’s not through something learnt. It’s something else: freedom. I think whether you are playing the repertoire or improvising, part of it is about openness and discovery.

WB: My teacher also said it starts with one tone; you can do a lot with one tone already. She calls it ‘a sound dive’: you play one tone, you listen to it, then you can be in a flow within 30 seconds.. Is that something you recognise?
GM: The flow comes from inside. It doesn’t matter where I am or what the circumstances around me are, it’s something that is always there. It doesn’t have to do as much with the sound or the emotion; it’s just the need to bring something out. I guess different people find different things in different ways and we all have very personal ways of being creative. What your teacher said is valid in performance. It’s a combination of sound, metaphore and desire to say something.

WB: Would I oversimplify when if I were to say that you actually can’t go wrong in an improvisation, since ‘anything is good’?
GM: I think anything is valid, but that doesn’t mean anything is good (laughs). It depends how you measure it.

WB: Something can be dissonant or consonant, my teacher said when you are scared that something sounds dissonant, it’s the wrong reaction.
GM: Take Mozart for example; in the style of the time that he lived in, every choice he made, was perfect. There could have been other choices musically. Sometimes, when I am teaching, I ask: “What if Mozart had done this?’ There are always options, the way to judge a composition or an improvisation is really about: ‘Was that the higher choice or the more musically elevated choice’,  Mozart shows the most musically elevated and evolved choice. I think it’s the same with improvisation. One thing is to do variatons, arpeggios and scales, but that’s not improvisation. It’s composition, creating a work in the moment. Like I said everything is valid, but not everything is great, it depends!

WB: When you say ‘the more elevated choice’, what is it opposed to?
GM: .. the other choices! The elevated option in Mozart,  in anything he left us, I can’t think of any example where I could choose other notes and they would be better.

WB: But are there examples of composers where you would say that?
GM: A few times, I think: Oh, I would have done this…

WB: Like what?
GM: I can’t think of any examples now…
WB: You ‘ve sparked my curiosity! Is it true too that peope stay within a certain comfort zone when they improvise? A theme in the right and the left hand, a minor variation…
GM: I don’t know, because I don’t see a lot of people improvise! Jazz improvisation is something totally different. I think the two hands should be equal…

WB: I was wondering whether there was something similar like an A-B-A form for sonatas, so there is kind of a pattern, even if it happens on the spot?
GM: You mean in my improvisations?
WB: In any improvisations!
GM: In my case, I don’t plan where I’m going; it evolves naturally, I could never do ’ten bars in this key’, It doesn’t happen like that for me.

WB: I did my homework and watched videos on YouTube, there was one that I found very inspiring when you played Rach 3 in the style of Bach! 
GM: Thank you, there are so many videos of different phases.

WB: Sometimes you really start in the style of a certain composer! It can be Bach or Mozart-like..Where does it come from?
GM: I don’t know, I would love to know as well.. it’s a mystery.

WB: But you are never nervous about it?
GM: No, I could do improvisation all day, every day, I could do every concert improvised and it would honestly be the easiest thing for me. It would be the most natural thing for me, more so than playing the repertoire. I would be free.

WB: Murray Perahia once said he regretted he was not able to improvise, would you accept him as your student if he asked you?
GM: I would be very honoured, of course I would love to do improvisation with him! Martha has also said to me that she would love to be able to improvise. I always say to her: ‘Well, with you, if we go to a room with two pianos and a bottle of wine, I am sure that something would happen.’ She is such a natural animal…
WB: She said she doesn’t have that talent?
GM: That’s what she says….
WB: You don’t believe her?
GM: I think it’s a door that hasn’t been opened in her case. I can’t say that for everyone, but for her…
WB: She is open to a lot of things!
GM: She is extraordinary of course…

WB: Do you know a lot of classical pianists who have a talent for improvisation? I know Cziffra was amazing, Katsaris seems to be very good too…
GM: I haven’t heard Katsaris…
WB: I have a friend who knows him and who told me that. I heard Volodos was a great improviser too!
GM: I never heard him improvise either, I heard some of Cziffra’s recordings, which are fantastic. It doesn’t seem to be something common in classical music unfortunately. I don’t know why, I really can’t explain it.

WB: And until you started doing it, because you said Martha was the one who said: ‘You really have to do this’, was it something you didn’t want to do or were you afraid to do so?
GM: I started playing when I was a very little girl, 3 or 4 years old, I was always improvising, because that was my natural relationship to the piano. And then I went from Venezuela to the US to study with someone who was really terrible for me. She was a terrible pedagogue and not the right person for me. She would say to me as a child: ‘Don’t improvise, because it is not worth anything.’ She was a very destructive personality, so I basically didn’t improvise in public for many years. It was not until the Chopin competition in 1995 when I won the bronze medal, in one of the gala concerts that the winners had to give. I improvised a Mazurka, which nobody knew, because you only play Chopin at the Chopin competition. Nobody knew what it was and there was some confusion: it sounded like Chopin, but nobody recognised it. So that was one of the few times when I was 25 and came out to improvise in public. It wasn’t until I was 31 when I played for Martha that she heard me improvise and play Schumann and Beethoven. She said: ‘You have to share this with the world, it’s so unique.’ She really gave me the motivation and the courage to actually say: ‘Okay, I have to be myself, 100%, not 50 %.’ That was significant for me.

WB: I have some questions about the Tchaikovsky 1st concerto that you will play with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: what’s your relationship with this piece?
GM: I first played it when I was 12 and I won a big competition in the US, it doesn’t exist any more. The first prize was a concert with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Scrowacewski. I ended up playing Tchaikovsky 1, I think it was one of the first performances, I was 12 years old. From then on, I played it many times. It’s a concerto that I love. People think of Tchaikovsky 1 as the big competition piece. For me, it carries so much pathos, pain, unresolved and hidden darkness, coming from a life of not being able to express himself. It’s a concerto that is incredibly noble and moving.

WB: And where do you hear the pain?
GM: Everywhere, from the very huge octaves that everybody plays very fast, for me there is storm behind a lot of these big moments in the piece. Of course, the fantasy, the ballet, the dancing in the music is very clear.

WB: I think it is often misunderstood as a display of virtuosity!
GM: No, for me, it’s an incredibly jarring piece. It really gets to me emotionally.
WB: Were you asked to play it?
GM: Yes, but I’ve also played it many times with Mirka. We did a big tour last year when we played it ten times in Europe. It’s a piece that I am asked to play a lot.

WB: Nikolai Rubinstein was very negative when Tchaikovsky played it for him. He said it was unpianistic, vulgar; is there any truth to this, because I don’t think he was completely wrong?
GM: Apparently, that was the first version that he wrote and that Rubinstein was referring to. He changed a few things to make it more pianistic.

WB: He did? I thought he was so angry that he said: ‘I won’t change one single note’
GM: I just read this was the improved version, but no, I wouldn’t say any of that. What pianists are able to do now technically is an evolution and far more advanced than what we were able to do 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago. Whatever unsurmountable technical difficulties Rubinstein said there were in this concerto, I think we have now passed that and it’s really about the music.

WB: I interviewed a colleague of yours, Dmitri Alexeev, who played it very well, he said that almost every pianist makes arrangements since some passages are not comfortable.
GM: Really? I’d like to see what he does! 
WB: He said there were only minor arrangements.
GM: Really, I had no idea. No, I play every note! 

WB: And the first chords in the piano part, are they arpeggos in the original version?
GM: Yes, I think so, but I play them as chords. If you play them as arpeggos, they don’t have the right sound, it becomes more romaticised. I play these chords fortississimo which is meant to be almost triumphant, in a noble way. 

WB: I read the premiere took place in Boston on 25 October 1875, with Hans von Bulov as the soloist, does that mean that Tchaikovsky didn’t hear the premiere then?
GM: Gosh, that’s a good question, I’ve never been asked that! 
WB: I guess he didn’t go the US? I was just amazed that it took place in America and not in Russia!
GM: That’s interesting!

WB: Who are your references in this concerto?
GM: I love Van Cliburn’s version from the competition, I think it is a very stoic performance, I love Martha’s version, because of the fire. I told someone yesterday, every time I see one of her videos of it, I start laughing at the octaves, because they’re superhuman.
WB: I remember I heard her twice in the Tchaikovsky, the first time was in Carnegie Hall, I was sitting very high up and when the octaves came, everybody was bending to see it. And then in 2019 she played it in Hamburg and she was aready 78, but I don’t think she wants to play it any more.
GM: Maybe not, but she played it not too long ago.
WB: She said: ‘I am sick of people who want to come and see the old lady play octaves’, but I still think it’s her piece!
GM: She is incredible..

WB: When she played it in the 70’s with Dutoit, it was already amazing and there is this wild version with Kondrashin, that is almost scary and then, and that’s why I admire her so much. In the 90’s she did it with Abbado and it was a synthesis of all the versions: with all the virtuosity, albeit slightly less wild, but with new insights, she keeps reinventing  herself!
GM: Exactly, but that’s the whole point. Even a piece that I’ve played for so many years, I keep finding worlds within it. Time passes and it is not in vain, you are supposed to see how things are revealed. For me, this concerto is not about virtuosity. It’s really a piece of incredible depth.

WB: Would you say it is a symphonic concerto too, like with Rachmaninov?
GM: I think so.

WB: I saw a short film with Maria Joao Pires and she said a few things that I thought were quite thought provoking: first of all, she said there are not that many differences between the person who plays and the person who listens. The difference is about how you use your body, but the person who listens is very active too. There is much less of a connection than people think. What’s your opinion about this?
GM: It’s interesting. I think ideally as an artist, you want to give something that will be received of course. For that you need willingness on your side and on the audience’s side. It is giving the art and receiving it as well as listening. They are both acts of generosity, one way or the other, I have always thought that. I don’t know if it is the same kind of thing, they are both active not passive, but at the same time what you give as an artist will be interpreted differently by anyone in the public. Essentially, what you are giving is a different offering to every person. It is not true that everybody hears the same. We don’t, we hear differently, we also have our own bias according to what we have lived through or what we have heard before. It depends on our references. When something really magical happens, you are in that very selfless state as an artist, where it is not about playing well or what the critics or the public will think. It is really about offering something that is pure, honest and says something about you and your life. That is what touches another person in the room.

WB: I think listening requires something from you, I love listening to pianists and I do it a lot, but sometimes, I need time to get used to another sound world. It is interesting, because sometimes, you are not ready to… I don’t know how to express it correctly..you just need time.
GM: There are piano nerds (laughs)..
WB: You are talking to one now!
GM: Okay, that’s a good thing, they know every recording, every version, it’s a world they have really submerged themselves in, it’s their world. And then there are people like me, music has always been my language, but music is more a vehicle to express something as a woman, as a person through the composers, but it’s ultimately about the human story that we share. I have learnt a lot from the piano file, but I think you need things from eachother. For me the piano is a tool to speak about life, more than a version of the Beethoven sonatas. It’s something else. 

WB: Is it more powerful than words?
GM: I think so and if it’s combined with words, it’s incredibly powerful. That’s why activism with words and music is so incredibly strong.

WB: You said you also receive and give things. If I can quote Pires again, she said: ‘A player thinks he is giving something to the public, but he is giving nothing. You have to be completely open and listen to them, but you don’t give them anything.’ She was very adamant about it.
GM: I don’t agree… different characters!

WB: She also said: ‘We are sharing something, we don’t know where it comes from, you are much less powerful than you think. You are nothing.’ She said it again..
GM: It’s not about power, that’s when you are above someone else. It is about putting yourself on the same level, talking to a human being in a way that they will connect with what you are trying to say. It is the opposite of power, it’s the most democratic..

WB: The vision of the artist can be powerful though I think.. I heard Richter a few times..
GM:  Wow, you are so lucky! I wish I had… When an artist is in tune with honesty, it’s the opposite of power. It’s completely about being selfless actually. 

WB: Maybe I can relate to what Pires said about ‘power’: Richter was a very honest person and that can be very powerful when you sit in the audience.
GM: It’s not a power that is meant to subjugate, it’s the power of what he embodies and the power of the message he is caring!

WB: My next question is  about Richter: I read about him: ‘When he spoke to the piano, it replied’. I like that, do you know other pianists who can achieve the same effect?
GM: For me, what I am looking for, and sometimes I find it, is complete intimacy with the instrument. Sometimes the piano replies, it is amazing ho wit reacts. It does give what you give to it. Of course, with Martha, there were many moments that I was so moved and amazed by what she was giving and receiving as well. Also I remember I heard a recital last year in Spain with Volodos which was  fantastic too. I just heard the most beautiful recital by Alexandre Kantorov, Chamayou, Beatrice Rana, Yuja Wang…It’s a great time for someone who loves the piano and they are all very different.

WB: One other quote from Pires: ‘Technique doesn’t exist, it’s using your body in order to produce something you want to do and this changes every moment.’
GM: Yes, I agree with that. I think there are some principles, I don’t believe in schools. It’s about how you create sound and metaphores and make it a physical and tangible delivery. It is very personal; however I think there are some things that are harmful to do when you play, certain movements. And there are some other ways that facilitate, but ultimately, once you get passed that, how you create sound that can pierce without it being painful is a very personal moment where your body has to  be at the service of the emotion and the concept you are trying to express. 

WB: Michelangeli said: ‘It’s not a profession to be a pianist, it’s a philosophy, a conception of life.’
GM: Yes, I agree, I think that kind of absolutish view, can probably only be said by a man (laughs) and someone with children, yes, being an artist in music is a philosophy, but then life is full of other things too and you have to navigate that as best as you can. You are a parent, you are a mother, you can’t behind philosophy. For me, and my life has been crazy, the piano is an expression of me and what I have lived and what I try to say about other human beings.

WB: You wrote a very touching story on Facebook yesterday and I was thinking: is it worth all the sacrifices? The music, the piano, the career? 
GM: It was very obvious that I was born to play the piano in a family that is not musical. I tried many times to not do this. The thing is that your nature wins in the end, I don’t see it as a career even though of course I had to go ahead in order to be able to survive a very difficult period of life with my two girls and I was a single mother for 12 years. You have to survive, you have to go on. I see it as living out my nature in the best possible way I can.

WB: Pollini said : ‘The existence of art is one of the greatest gifts to humanity.’ I guess you agree?
GM: Yes, I absolutely do, but I also think that art is much more significant and meaningful when it is used to reveal and to do good. It’s also a very dangerous and damaging tool when it’s used to conceal and to carry messages that go against the welfare of the rest of humanity. Art is a wonderful thing but it also depends on what you use it for.

WB: What do you think about what is happening at the moment in Poland where they have banned Russian music because of the war in Ukraine?
GM: It’s a very delicate situation.  I understand that artists will side with psychopaths, there is a price to pay and there should be. You can’t just go through life because you are an artist and have licences and relationships with despots and murderers and think it is ok because you are an artist. No, it’s not okay, you are a human being, you are not above anyone else. Now, to ban Russian music as a whole, I think it’s punishing Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Shostakovitch, it has nothing to do with this. I understand that it has a very nationalistic kind of character, it is sensitive time in our history now, but I think you have to be fair. 

WB: I think it doesn’t help anybody to say: ‘You can’t play Tchaikovsky 1 now, you have to play another concerto.’ 
GM: I think the connection is too loose, this is not what it should be about.