‘Tchaikovsky’ not a night at the improv

Special To The Times

Gabriela Montero, the Venezuelan-born classical pianist, is enjoying a hearty last laugh over those who once scoffed at her unusual ability to improvise.

She’s been on “60 Minutes.” Her concert schedule is full. Her second CD for EMI, “Bach and Beyond,” which consists of nothing but freewheeling improvisations, is a classical bestseller. Starting in October, she will be improvising live on her website, with free downloads available for three days after each event.

So obviously, many were anticipating a freshly minted Montero improvisation at her Hollywood Bowl debut with Thomas Wilkins and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on a beastly hot Friday night. But first things first, for she happened to be booked for the Bowl’s perennial “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” -- and that meant an automatic opening bout with the inevitable Piano Concerto No. 1.

Fortunately, Montero refused to treat the old warhorse casually -- and yes, she played the notes as written. Her scherzando flights in the first movement had spunk and wit; a thunderous double-octave passage lifted off with impressive firepower. The Prestissimo interlude in the second movement for once came off like the wild, untamed fantasy that it is supposed to be, and the repeated Russian theme of the finale had a rhetorical quality that resembled conversation. This was a really interesting take on the concerto -- fast, nervy, impulsive.


For an encore, Montero usually takes audience requests for something to improvise upon, but this time she asked the orchestra for a tune. After an uneasy general silence, concertmaster Alexander Treger came up with a timely line from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

Montero took it from there through a delightful jet stream of influences from Rachmaninoff to stride, frequently and cleverly reverting back to the tune before signing off with a flip ending. While improvising jazz pianists usually chain themselves to chord patterns, Montero just lets fly into open space -- and she has the technique and ear to take her excursions just about anywhere.

For Wilkins, the music director of the Omaha Symphony, this was his Bowl debut too -- and he took to the great, casual outdoors instantly, ebulliently wielding the microphone like he owned the place. He conducted an ad hoc suite of dances from “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” and “The Snow Maiden” with a big smile and bustling tempos, sometimes a bit too unyielding in rhythm.

Wilkins offered one genuine rarity, the “Festival Coronation March,” little more than a pompous military tune fit for a czar. And he led a brisk, brassy, ship-shape “1812 Overture” with fireworks that were noisier, splashier and perhaps funnier than ever.