“Hello Radio Warsaw. What are these unknown works of our Frédéric?” asked the Poles during a live broadcast of a 1995 Gabriela Montero recital, when she won third prize in the Chopin Piano Competition. (Martha Argerich, president of the jury, had voted for the first prize for the prodigious pianist.) These were not the works of Chopin – they were the improvisations of Gabriela, the only person in the world capable of spontaneously channeling the heights of the geniuses she dares to clone in public. Pasticcio and imitation are common – many pianists are capable of making us believe that what they improvise is an authentic work, but their imposture does not survive the moment. To confuse an audience in Chopin’s native country for the entire second half of a recital is a feat of another level. To extend his catalog of works postmortem is magic.
The capacity to infiltrate the intimate codes of great composers and produce highly interesting new content in real time, constructed like calculated compositions, is shaking the foundations of the conventional classical concert around the world. These are not some little tricks. Last year, in one of the great halls of Boston, we heard Gabriela create a Bach-style toccata based on a theme proposed by an audience member: exposition, transitions, developments, variations, recapitulation, and conclusion within the most eloquent harmonic discourse, with sublime polyphonies played at high speed without stumbling. An insensitive person might question the artistic value of such a prodigy: is it redundant to create works in styles of the past that possibly are no longer capable of moving us emotionally? Is it creation? Here is precisely where creation is redefined. Gabriela’s gift opens conceptual avenues that supersede the problem. The fact that she uses languages of the past does not mean she cannot travel to the future as well, or find something new to say in a classical idiom. The certainty that history has one sole meaning is replaced by the amazement of rediscovering the sacred fountain where all the greats quenched their thirst; an inexhaustible Borgesian Aleph, vertiginous in its timelessness – a fountain that taxidermist musical institutions tried to monopolize, that merchants of embalmed versions bottled and distributed, that academic tyrannies analyzed and categorized into one sole meaning. Jazz and church organ traditions kept improvisation alive while “classical” music lay in a state of coma. Now we see a phenomenon comparable to the effect of Gustavo Dudamel on concerts everywhere: the rebirth of heated creation in a medium as frigid as the piano recital, where improvisation was the custom until the end of the 19th century and even up to Poulenc. The whole meaning of written repertoire, of the act of playing and composing music frozen in scores, should be revised. A written work is not devalued in the face of improvisation, but we certainly listen to it in a different way when we hear beside it the impromptus of the magnitude that Gabriela Montero invents. Venezuela is transforming music around the world. We will soon study the history of its collective talent.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland