You may know Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero from her appearances on American Public Media's Performance Today, where she does a recurring bit called Sing It and Wing It. A caller sings her a tune, and she makes up a set of improvisations right there on the spot.
Montero has made improvisation part of her performance routine. And even when she's not improvising, she approaches her playing with that kind of mindset.
Montero gets fired up when she talks about what performers are expected to do. She says there's so much focus on being technically perfect that the whole spirit of creativity can get lost in the shuffle. What's the point of playing music if there's no joy in it?
That unbridled passion, and a willingness to let a performance evolve, are a couple things she has in common with French cellist Gautier Capucon. In fact, he and his violinist brother Renaud have raised a few eyebrows in the world of classical music, due to what some critics consider their almost reckless approach to performance.
I love it. Both the big works on their new CD are well-suited to that kind of abandon.
Sergei Prokofiev was battling demons when he wrote his cello sonata -- the death of his best friend, the arrest of his wife, his failing health, and the stifling Soviet bureaucracy.
The opening of the sonata is full of such wonderful contradictions. You think it's mournful, but then it sounds boastful. And then a whisper of defeat, followed by absolute defiance. It's really remarkable.
Sergei Rachmaninov stared down a few demons of his own and had just bounced back from a serious bout of depression, thanks to the work of a hypnotherapist.
Rachmoninov said the doctor's treatment had "strengthened [his] nervous system to a miraculous degree. The joy of creating lasted the next two years, and I wrote a number of large and small pieces, including the Sonata for Cello."
Even when it's dark and foreboding, there's an unmistakable sense of determination. Rachmaninov's Sonata is a return to joy.
Capucon and Montero both came to their instruments at a very young age. Capucon tried the violin at age 4, but hated it without knowing why. But then he held a cello for the first time and he knew -- this is it.
Montero started even earlier, plinking out recognizable tunes on a toy piano before she could even walk.
I read a quote once that said, "Happiness is being in the right place...and knowing it." That stuck with me.
Maybe Rachmaninov's recovery and Prokofiev's music-making and Capucon hating the violin and Montero's grandmother propping her up in front of a toy piano -- maybe the essence of truly powerful music is all about the different paths we take to find the right place.