Why Don’t More Classical Musicians Improvise?
By Brian Wise / Naomi Lewin
Improvisation is a nearly obsolete art in classical music these days. But virtuosos used to improvise all the time. Mozart freely improvised on his own tunes, Liszt would strike up an aria from a Wagner opera and embellish it. Even legendary piano showmen of the 20th century made it part of their performance practice early in their careers – people like Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Leopold Godowsky.
There are a few performers who have taken up the improvisation mantle, including pianist Gabriela Montero. In both recitals and as concerto encores, she spins out elaborate original creations based on a given theme; sometimes she even asks audience members to sing melodies on which she elaborates. But she notes that despite public interest, this has become a double-edged sword, with some music executives mistakenly labeling her a crossover artist.
“There are so few of us that do it on the concert platform that you become an oddity,” Montero said. “The way the business is set up, people pigeonhole you and they have to find a label for you. So if you improvise, you’re too creative or too free to be a classical concert pianist, which is absolute nonsense.”
Montero maintains that artists must resist “the pressures of careers or the imaginary limitations that people impose on themselves.”
Do you think classical musicians should be freer with their interpretations and improvise?