Having just discovered her, I’m still on Cloud Nine:
Happy Birthday (She must be getting tired of that one.)
A lovely article at the LA Chamber Orchestra website
Montero’s entire appeal is very interesting in a classical music arena, where audiences have gotten used to the soothing comfort of having heard something a dozen times and hence never being surprised. Unfortunately, I think that a large portion of the classical audience is composed of people who dislike being surprised, even pleasantly. And to be fair, many classical pieces are complex enough that they require repeated listening to reveal some of their most subtle secrets.
But the fascination with an improvisational musician consists of leaning forward and eagerly awaiting the unknown to come. What’s she going to do this time? is on the mind of just about everyone listening to Montero’s improvisational wanderings. Certainly operatic cadenzas can have some of that appeal, but even they have gotten a bit staid over the years; they all have an identical run-up lately, like a long-jumper approaching the sandpit with those long, one-two-three loping steps. Part of the beauty of Franklin’s rendition of “Nessun dorma” was hearing a familiar old warhorse aria done with a new approach, including a never-before-heard final cadenza and that equally unfamiliar, magnificent little arpeggio between the first and second repeats of the title phrase. Finally! A new way to sing it — and not by a piker but by one of the most respected voices of our time. (I’ve also recently discovered that pop singer Michael Bolton, who has quite a good voice, has recorded a CD of some well-known Romantic arias. I’m very anxious to purchase a copy and listen to new interpretations by an excellent singer who brings a whole new tradition of styles with him. I doubt that I’ll hear the one-two-three run-up in the cadenzas from him, or at least I hope I don’t.)
And Montero’s extended improvisational riffs finally expose the lack in the modern ethos of classical music through inviting people to hear it in the present moment, to sit forward a bit and await amazement at a new way of hearing. It may offend purists who prefer the comfort of predictability, but it will bring in entire new sections of society who like to be surprised — the same sort of people who see the newest movies on opening weekend, so as to avoid being “spoiled” for major plot twists.
Unfortunately for musicians, this means of making a living is a lot more work since the music cannot be treated as a commodity anymore (and even popular music is terrible that way). Music has become akin to software, where a company can pay its programmers to write something once, and then sell it a thousand times. But to keep this fascination level up, one must be endlessly inventive … and live. It’s not easy. The bar has been raised.