One of the more interesting moments of the Obama inauguration on January 20th was, for me, the John Williams penned “Air and Simple Gifts.” Many classical music bloggers were happy to have a piece of classical music featured as part of such a high visibility ceremony. Of course, it pales in comparison to other historical offerings; for example, Abraham Lincoln staged Flowtow’s opera Martha for his second inauguration. But even though the piece was light (Yo-Yo Ma referred to it as the “Quartet for the Next Four Minutes”), it was nice and tonal.
One thing that I did not know however, was who Gabriela Montero, the pianist of the quartet, was. Unfortunately, it seemed as if at any one time, either Montero or the clarinetist, Anthony Gill, was cut out of the frame. I went googling to track her down. Thats where I saw this video:
Needless to say, after this, I was in love.
I next hunted down her 2006 CD, Bach and Beyond. I don’t know how much I could hold it up as one of the essential albums of all time, but it’s certainly way fun. The songs are basically extended improvisations on Bach warhorse piano repertoire like Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Sheep May Safely Graze, and pieces from the Well Tempered Clavier. All are pieces that people who don’t listen to classical music would recognize. For those of us who do, many of these pieces we have heard too many times to count, and it’s a lot of fun to hear when she breaks off from the written music and explore the chords and melodic possiblilities.
Another part of why this is so fun is the sheer amount of sources she draws from in her improvisations. In addition to the ragtime that you hear in the video above, she also throws in swing, neo-impressionist piano, jazz, Rachmaninoff-esque big Romantic gestures, as well as the Latin rhythems of her native Venezuela.
I highly recommend giving it a listen, even if it’s only as background music. Then you can do a double take when she seamlessly turns the Toccata in D Minor into a funky Latin jam.