Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Cleveland Institute of Music
February 21

Making memories at Mixon Hall.

America’s premier avant-garde vocalist seemed as dazzled to be in Mixon Hall on Friday night as the small audience was to see her. “It’s wonderful to be here in this gorgeous space,” Meredith Monk said when she took the stage, with an admiring glance and gesture at the glittering glass backwall. Later she described both the look and sound of Mixon as “exquisite,” and departed with a final sweep of her arm, as if to include the room in the cause for applause.

As a site-specific performance artist, Monk is more sensitive to her surroundings than most singers. And Mixon’s atmosphere and acoustics are superb. But the truth is that Monk doesn’t need a special setting to properly showcase her groundbreaking work. The style, approach and content of her singing is so compelling and innovative, it has riveted audiences from Lincoln Center to the Venice Biennale – only two of the many places she’s taken her songs, dances, operas and films over the past 50 years.

Monk’s performance at CIM offered an overview of her vocal compositions reaching back to her 1971 release Key. Not presented in strict chronological order, the pieces represented less an arc of development than an inventory of her tones and techniques. Lyrics are spare in Monk’s songs; most of them employ nonsense syllables or pure sounds arranged in formal structures and delivered in a dizzying, sometimes startling array of effects. Seeing her in person adds another dimension, as she takes on different moods and personae, often in the space of a single song.

Even calling her pieces “songs” is a bit of misnomer. Monk uses her voice not to imitate the sounds of instruments, but as an instrument. It can hit high, clear operatic notes or drop to a low rasp. Traditional techniques like phrasing, breathing and scatting are only the foundation for noises (clicks, squawks, screeches), animal calls (howls, squeals, yips) and characters (a gruff male, a cackling female) that give her music a strong visual quality and emotional impact. In concert she typically performs with a microphone, as she did at Mixon, which adds an electric resonance to the sound.

Singing a cappella in the first half of her performance, Monk encouraged the audience to visualize the desert landscape of New Mexico and then brought it to life with atmospheric selections like “Porch” and “Descending.” Close on the heels of those spiritual evocations were dashes of the humor that keeps her work from becoming pretentious – a raucous cascade of buzzing, chirping, clicking and rattling in “Insect,” and the repeating “meow meow meow” set to music in “Lullaby #4.” She finished her opening set playing a Jew’s harp, noting that she recently had to replace it and promising to do her best on “my new ax.”

Monk spent the second half of the performance at the piano, offering more recent work and glimpses of her personal life. Pieces like “Gotham Lullaby” and “Travelling” showed that she’s not averse to melody, or using the keyboard to provide propulsive rhythms. The lament of “Last Song” from her 2008 release Impermanence reflected both the frailty of life and loss of her longtime partner, Mieka van Hoek. “The Tale” from the opera Education of the Girlchild offered an inventory of items the character hadn’t lost (“I still have my mind”). It also provided Monk with a self-deprecating line when she realized she had almost forgotten to play the shruti box set up at the side of the stage: “I still have my memories!”

The long and complex “Madwoman’s Vision” came with a detailed introduction that offered an important insight into Monk’s work: What may sound like nonsense patter to everyone else is in fact a private language to her, which she uses to build characters and narratives. Listening to it, one realizes that although lyrics are traditionally used to convey the message of a song, they actually get in the way of its deeper meaning. Monk’s music forces you to change the way you listen, focusing on the musical quality and emotional content of the vocals rather than their literal sense.

It takes a bit of mental rearrangement to get there. Once you do, music will never sound the same.

For more on Meredith Monk:

The Jew’s harp is an ancient instrument that goes by many names and has many variations. For more on its history and use:

Photo: ML Antonelli


Rocky River Presbyterian Church
February 23

An exciting excursion into a new repertoire.

When you can create atmospherics in a suburban church the size of a barn, you’re doing something special. When you transport hundreds of people packed in the pews to a time and culture centuries away, that’s magical. And great fun, as Apollo’s Fire showed with its “Sephardic Journey” program this past weekend. The spirit and sound of the music could have come straight out of a Mideastern bazaar, mixed with spices ranging from ancient prayer chants to Italian Baroque.

The program was the creation of Artistic Director and conductor Jeannette Sorrell and soprano Nell Snaidas, who has toured the world singing 17th- and 18th-century Spanish music, and specializes in the Sephardic repertoire. Using the theme of spiritual longing for a homeland as a departure point, they traced the religious songs and customs the Jews brought to Spain, the development of romantic and celebratory music incorporating Spanish sounds, and how it evolved in places like Turkey and Italy after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Sephardic soprano.
Bringing the music to life required a large group of musicians – 11 instrumentalists (plus Sorrell occasionally on harpsichord), and a chorus of 15 that included Snaidas and three other soloists. They struck an exotic atmosphere and thematic keynote with the opening piece, a Sorrell arrangement of the ages-old chant “Ir me kero, madre, a Yerushalayim” (I want to go to Jerusalem, mother). The chorus provided a lush backdrop for baritone Jeffrey Strauss, who segued neatly to the lighter and brighter “Cuando el Rey Nimrod,” a Sephardic folk song given spirit and sparkle by the chorus. Three liturgical chants featured warm, dynamic singing by the male chorus members, balanced by delicate work on the hammer dulcimer by Tina Bergmann.

Composer Salamone Rossi, whose seminal Songs of Solomon brought traditional Jewish music into the Baroque period, provided the core of the program. Along with religious works, he wrote pieces like “Sonata in Dialogo,” which featured sharp, smart exchanges between violinists Olivier Brault and Julie Andrijeski. A rousing performance by the chorus put an electric charge in two Songs of Solomon, drawing enthusiastic applause.

The ensemble shifted gears to finish the first half, giving the singers a chance to show what they could do with love songs. The female members of the chorus were sweet in “Ah el Novio no quere dinero,” with elegant support from flutist Christa Patton. And Snaidas was lustrous in “La Rosa enflorese,” with Andrijeski and Bergmann adding vibrant colors. 

Brault provided tenor Karim Sulayman with an enticing solo violin introduction to “Adio querida,” which the singer milked for every bit of emotional pathos inherent in a sad farewell. After a short instrumental that featured a solo by percussionist Rex Benincasa, Strauss and Sulayman struck up a lively duet in “A la Una yo nasci” that blossomed into a boisterous finish by the full group.

Snaidas opened the second half with a reprise of the thematic “Yerushalayim,” then Strauss and the male singers served up a determined “Ki eshmera Shabbat” (If I guard the Sabbath), with Banincasa adding some drama on percussion. The dark tones of “Shabbat” quickly brightened with more Songs of Solomon, highlighted by a radiant, energetic “Hallelujah Ashreish” chorus.

Two more prayers offered mixed results. Cellist Renè Schiffer wrote music for the traditional “Adon Alom,” which sounded choppy and fragmented in a call-and-response between Snaidas and the chorus. But theorbo player Brian Kay came back with a tasty solo intro to “Tzur mishelo akhalnu,” which featured strong, expressive vocals by Strauss and Sulayman, complemented by rolling percussion from Banincasa.

The finale was festive, starting with a trio of short Rossi dances that were squarely in the Baroque tradition, providing a showcase for fine string work by Brault, Andrijeski and violist Karina Schmitz. The momentum carried into a duet of folk songs that featured Snaidas and Sulayman trading lines about doughnut recipes, and the concluding “La Comida la Manana,” a full-ensemble sing-along with Patton adding flourishes on a shawm.

It was a scholarly, imaginative program that only a skillful and adventuresome ensemble could have pulled off. Apollo’s Fire has established a reputation as a first-class Baroque group, but this program and the capacity audiences it attracted – suggests there are many other fascinating period repertoires to explore.

For more on Apollo’s Fire:

Photos: Apollo's Fire by Daniel Levin; Nell Snaidas by Ron Rinaldi

Monday, February 17, 2014


Severance Hall
February 13

Surprisingly uneven work in a disappointing debut.

Some weeks, the hometown band is interesting for what it can do under the direction of a visiting conductor. Other times, it’s impressive for what it can accomplish despite a new hand at the helm. German conductor Marc Albrecht’s Thursday night debut with the Cleveland Orchestra was, unfortunately, an example of the latter. Which was surprising, given his success with European orchestras and affinity for the 20th-century repertoire.

Currently chief conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Netherlands Opera, Albrecht, 49, made his reputation in the orchestra pits at the Hamburg State Opera, Staatstheater Darmstadt and Deutsche Oper Berlin. His style is well-suited to the stage, with grand, dramatic gestures and vivid colors in the music. Noted in particular for his handling of Wagner and Strauss, he would seem a perfect fit for a program of two familiar Mahler works and the orchestral version of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor (Op. 25).

But his performance was uneven, veering from carefully crafted detail work to broad strokes so loose that there were technical miscues, with the players making their own internal adjustments. And in what should have been Albrecht’s strength – accompanying mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer – the singer and conductor seemed to be out of synch.

The evening opened with Mahler’s Blumine, the “leftover” movement from the composer’s first symphony. Albrecht’s rendering was straightforward and lacked clarity, sounding like a solid, uninspired wall of sound. Especially taken out of its original symphonic context, the Blumine is not very expressive and needs some sharpening and verve. But an apparent timing misstep in the opening trumpet cantilena seemed to throw the piece off slightly, and it never developed any texture or depth.

Albrecht got off to a better start with Songs of a Wayfarer, providing bright, buoyant accompaniment for Cooke. There was a lot more detail in the sound, which sparkled at times. But then it would fly open and range widely before coming back to a tight focus. The inconsistent approach appeared uncomfortable for the musicians, who sounded comparatively stiff in their playing.
Short but sweet.

It may also have affected Cooke, who was not always on top of her breathing. That’s unusual – typically, she has a great feel for the work of not only Mahler, but late 20th-century composers like John Adams and Philip Glass. Her expertise was clear in a rich lower register for the first two songs, a powerful dramatic flair in “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” and the high, delicate melodic lines of “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz.” Cooke’s brief but engaging turn drew enthusiastic applause from the audience, as well as the orchestra members.

The Brahms quartet sounds nothing like a chamber work in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1937 transcription, which in performance looks like an exercise in using every single instrument in a large orchestra. Indeed, when asked why he undertook the task, Schoenberg said, “It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything.”

That much Albrecht managed to achieve. Individual instruments and sections came to the fore, with the conductor finally taking advantage of the orchestra’s silken strings, vibrant horns and woodwinds, and precision percussion. All four movements brimmed with color and drama, building to a fast-paced finish of aural fireworks. The energy was infectious and the sprawling dimensions of the work were fascinating.

Still, it seemed hollow, all surface gloss and dazzle without a tight central core. And the sound was once again uneven, powerful in the dramatic swells that Albrecht favors but anemic in the more thoughtful passages, particularly in the second movement. And the dark tones of the third movement just never arrived. Technically the piece suffered as well, with rough edges instead of clean, sharp lines in the final movement, and passages throughout where different sections of the orchestra seemed to be bumping into each other instead of meshing. In the whirlwind finish, the sound was nearly tripping over itself.

None of which seemed to bother the Severance audience, which responded with its usual fervor. For that, the orchestra players deserve even more credit than usual.

For more on Marc Albrecht:


Cleveland Museum of Art
February 12

Chen and Elizalde at a peformance in Washington, DC.

The last time we saw Ray Chen, he was at Blossom Music Center, whipping The Four Seasons into a frenzy under the benevolent baton of Jahja Ling. If his performance was less than meticulous, it was balanced by bravura technical skills and the cheerful enthusiasm that the violinist brings to his performances. Those same traits energized his recital last week with pianist Julio Elizalde in a program better-suited to Chen’s style and strengths.

At the tender age of 24, Chen is a darling in both the classical music and fashion worlds. A prodigy who started playing at the age of four, he studied at Curtis and won two prestigious competitions (Yehudi Menuhin, 2008 and Queen Elisabeth, 2009) before launching onto the international performing circuit. Chen has performed at high-profile events like the opening of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the 2012 Nobel Prize concert in Stockholm, and at Fashion Week in Milan last year, where he played Paganini backstage for Giorgio Armani, who is a friend and supporter.

Chen took the stage at CMA last week with the second Stradivarius to come through Cleveland in less than a week, a rare treat for lovers of fine instruments. His does not have the golden sound of Gil Shaham’s, but it does have a very pure and elegant tone that matches Chen’s style and wardrobe.

He and Elizalde opened with a pro forma rendition of Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major (K.305). Chen mentioned after the piece that it was the first time they were performing together in 2014, and it sounded like it. The music was well-informed and technically precise, but it came across as two people playing with each other rather than together, with a tight organic sound. The audience certainly didn’t mind, applauding eagerly after the first movement. Perhaps future programs should contain instructions on concert etiquette.

Chen confessed to his love for “showpieces” before diving into a trio of Sarasate works, which provided plenty of opportunity for showing off. Chen is too open and self-effacing in his running conversations with the audience to come across as arrogant, but he has a streak of guitar hero in him. So he revels in a piece like the Habanera (Op, 21, No. 2), which is basically a series of effects that call for flashy fingering and fancy bowing, executed by Chen with zest and flair. (Cue the applause again!)

The slower Playera was the first piece that suggested Chen might have some expression to go with his formidable technical skills. The work is dramatic, bordering on tortured at times, and sounded good with Chen adding some emotional ballast. Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) (Op. 20. No. 1) is even more melodramatic and blazingly fast, which gave both players an opportunity to fly through some dazzling finger work. Chen is so quick that he was running ahead of Elizalde by the end, commanding the spotlight in true guitar hero fashion.

The second half of the program got serious with Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9 in A major, more popularly known as the “Kreutzer Sonata.” Chen and Elizalde had clearly worked on this piece, playing it with an intense focus and unified sound, giving the music character. Elizalde finally had a chance to show some color and lyricism in the solo piano passages, and Chen attacked his part, giving it the grandest possible proportions. If their performance was not an entirely persuasive statement about being serious musicians, it left no doubt about two first-rate talents who will only get better with seasoning.

And who could not be charmed by the duo quickly coming back for an encore that Chen introduced by saying, “We’re going to do more Sarasate, if that’s okay.” It was quite okay with the delirious audience, which Chen held in his hand with fiery runs and leaps to take the high notes even higher...just like a rock star. If this is what it takes to pump new life into classical music and bring in younger fans, then put on the Armani, pull out the Strad, and let’s go.

For more on Ray Chen:

And a peek backstage at Milan Fashion Week:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Severance Hall
February 8

A light touch with the mainstream repertoire.

Remember the kid in high school who could do everything? Class president. Star athlete. Homecoming king. And, needless to say, tall and handsome – like Nikolaj Znaider, the Danish violinist and conductor who stood in for Pierre Boulez at Severance Hall this past weekend. While no one can fill Boulez’s shoes, Zneider cut a charismatic and persuasive figure handling an engaging program both from the podium and in the soloist spotlight.

Znaider, 38, comes with impressive bona fides. He studied with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard and Boris Kuschnir in Vienna and won his first international competition at the age of 16. He has performed with orchestras throughout Europe and the U.S., recorded chamber music with Daniel Barenboim and Yefim Bronfman, and founded a music academy to nurture young talent. In 2010 Valery Gergiev took Znaider under his wing at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, where he is now principal guest conductor.

Znaider brought a fabulous instrument – a 1741 Guarneri del Gesú once owned by Fritz Kreisler, the second priceless violin heard in Cleveland last week (see Gil Shaham review below). It has a dark, rich tone that brings to mind aromatic coffee, clean and compressed in Znaider’s hands. The sound was an elegant complement to the orchestra’s silken strings, which sounded as radiant as ever in Mozart’s Violin concerto No. 3. The piece is an early work that Znaider presented in straightforward fashion, restricting his flourishes to a bit of interplay with the orchestra in the second movement and a playful spirit in the third.

Playing it straight.
How does one play and conduct at the same time? Znaider stood on the floor with a chamber-sized ensemble from the orchestra, setting the tempo to start the piece and keep it moving, intermittently turning to face the audience for his solos. If his conducting was minimal, it was all that was needed. The orchestra members have this music in their DNA, and were ready with a lush, lilting backdrop for Znaider’s beautifully fluid performance.

Given an opportunity to take the podium and focus on conducting, Znaider showed a deft hand and light touch with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4. The work is not terribly complicated, but it has some fancy turns in the second movement that he handled adroitly, rolling each phrase neatly into the next. Some fireworks at the end provided a satisfying finish, but what most impressed was Znaider’s feel for the small, bright accents that run throughout the piece. They flickered with color and energy, adding zest to this well-worn work.

Under Znaider’s baton, Elgar’s Enigma Variations had the same brio, along with a notably sunny disposition. The piece requires a large orchestra, and Znaider showed that he’s capable not only of handling sprawling instrumentation, but pulling fine touches out of it – delicate strings, prancing woodwinds, carefully calibrated horns and boisterous percussion. Setting a smart pace for the procession of personality sketches, he gave a dynamic, full-blooded account of another familiar staple.

This was probably not Znaider at his best. Juggling soloist and conductor roles in a single performance is a serious challenge for even the most experienced performers, much less taking them on as a substitute. Still, Znaider’s playing left more than a tinge of regret at missing him perform Bartók’s Violin concerto No. 2 with Boulez, as originally scheduled. And his conducting showed a sophisticated understanding of how to work with an orchestra and capitalize on its strengths.

The homecoming king was never so versatile or gracious. Here's hoping Znaider comes back with his fab violin, and the Bartók, soon.

For more on Nikolaj Znaider:

Top photo: N. Razina


Cleveland Museum of Art
February 6

Giving well-known works a fresh sound.

Last week this column noted the pleasure of hearing a great player like Jeremy Denk paired with a really fine Steinway. This, however, turned out to be just a warm-up for an even more refined combination at the Cleveland Museum of Art two nights later: Gil Shaham playing his 1699 Stradivarius.

The sound – warm, golden, positively shimmering in its intensity – is only one of the reasons the virtuoso violinist packs concert halls around the world, even (and maybe especially) when he is performing solo. Shaham’s near-flawless playing, brilliant technique and gift for expression place him among the best in his profession, a status which has given him license to explore and expand the violin repertoire. He has, for example, almost single-handedly resurrected Erich Korngold’s neglected Violin Concerto in D major on the concert circuit.

This month Shaham is revisiting Bach’s works for solo violin in a series of recitals throughout the U.S. and Europe. Once relegated to teaching exercises, the three sonatas and three partitas have reemerged as technical tours de force that offer rich opportunities for interpretation. Which puts them right in Shaham’s wheelhouse.

From the opening notes of Sonata No. 2, Shaham offered a reminder of one of the key characteristics of his work – his ability to make the music sound fresh. His crisp sound and attention to detail put a bite in Bach, and his evocation of the sonata's polyphonic effects took it to a new level, particularly in the second movement. Shaham played it so that the notes interlocked, turning the melody into a mosaic of sound that seemed to come from multiple voices rather than just one instrument. The closing Allegro gave him an opportunity to reel off some dazzling runs in his inimitable style lightning-fast without missing a single note, played with exquisite fluidity and grace.

One might quibble with Shaham’s tempo, which is far from the stately pace that has long been the Baroque standard. At times, it seems designed mostly to showcase his eye-popping playing skills. But the trade-off is that the music takes on a new vibrancy, particularly evident in the Partita No. 2. It sounded charged with electricity in Shaham’s hands, and razor-sharp in his control of ultrafine ornamentation and the daunting complexities of the Corrente and Giga.

Shaham paused for just a second before diving into the concluding Chaconne, starting with a measured tempo and tone that managed to sound both sad and grand at once. It faltered a bit before picking up speed and confidence through the incredible rush of figures and variations, which Shaham blazed through and brought to an achingly beautiful finish.

After intermission, Shaham set a torrid pace with Sonata No. 3, once again building a sonic structure that seemed impossible to come from a single instrument. His command of the piece is such that he can fly through the technical challenges and concentrate on expression – in this case, an unbridled joy that captures both the secular and spiritual dimensions of the work. He gave it lighter emotional weight than the first two selections, finessing dense passages, adding playful ornamentation and finishing the concert on a bright, cheery note.

Though it all, the violin was like a second musician onstage, singing, laughing and crying in lush, tender tones. No one combines such sophisticated interpretation with technical virtuosity as well as Shaham, who turns every performance into high art.

For more on Gil Shaham:

To hear him play the Chaconne from Partita No. 2:


Wednesday, February 5, 2014


EJ Thomas Hall
February 4

A captivating mix of erudition and exploration.

Jeremy Denk cuts a decidedly different figure onstage. He plays the piano like a precocious 12-year old, bobbing and weaving and waving his head as his hands bounce on the keys. At his recital in Akron on Tuesday night, he prefaced each piece he played (except, oddly, the last one) with what he called “spoken program notes” – introductions that included background on the composer, the work, and how he approaches it.

Which turned out to be hugely helpful. Denk is the second major keyboard talent to appear in northeast Ohio in the past two weeks, and like the first, Gabriela Montero (see review below), he has his own highly personal language and style. Prodigiously talented, Denk can play textbook versions of complicated classics or run off in entirely new directions with them – often both in a single piece. So it’s good to have a road map, offering some sense of where he’s going and why.

What distinguishes Denk from many of his contemporaries is his knowledge of and respect for the music. Interpretations can be an ego exercise, an artist using a work to show off his skills or bend the music to his tastes. From both his introductions and the focused intensity of his playing, it’s clear that Denk has thought a lot about the music he performs, what the composer had in mind and achieved, and how he can honor and bring that to life. If Denk doesn’t play exactly what’s on the page it’s because he’s aiming for a higher truth, one that embodies the spirit and intent of the music without necessarily nailing all the details.

That was clear in the opening work, Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 15 in F major (KV 533/494). Denk’s animated approach and mischievous tone captured the exuberant quality of Mozart’s music, even in the darker, complex harmonics that appear late in the piece. In keeping with his opening observation that the three movements are so different, they might have been written by three different composers, Denk created epic pictures on a broad canvas. If some notes went missing or got clipped along the way, that did not detract from the overall impact.

Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David) took Denk’s performance from intriguing to amazing. After setting up the piece as the composer’s giddy gift to his fiancèe Clara, he gave a masterful rendition of it, capturing the freewheeling sense of movement while reveling in the vivid array of colors, tones and moods that run through the 18 movements. A work of considerable complexity, it sounded completely fluid and fresh in Denk’s hands. And his control was astonishing. Again and again he would run the music to a precipitous outer edge, only to pull it back into straightforward virtuoso territory.

Denk opened the second half with three of Ligeti’s late-career Ètudes. The pianist’s style seems too lyrical for modern music, but he has a firm grasp of these works, which he has described as “bite-sized bits of infinity.” The dexterous work on technically confounding passages, broken chords floating like delicate aural wisps, and precision sounds – the final notes of L’escalier du diable had the crystalline quality of falling icicles – made for a smart, coolly impassioned reading.

Schumann’s Carnaval provided a riveting close, with even the simplest melodies carrying great portent and every note rich with feeling. Fittingly for a work describing a sequence of scenes and characters, it had a strong inner pulse that seemed to pull Denk along, rather than vice versa. It’s a remarkable achievement when the music takes on a life of its own. In this case Denk deserves credit not only for his understanding and mastery of the piece, but his willingness to disappear inside it and ride the rapids with his listeners.

A brief nod to Bach’s Goldberg Variations was enough of an encore for an audience anxious to get out ahead of a gathering snowstorm. And the warm, lingering sounds of the “Three Graces” Steinway offered a final reminder of what a gifted player can create with a peerless instrument: Magic.

For more on Jeremy Denk:


Cleveland Institute of Music
January 23

A virtuoso performer who gladly takes requests.

It was a scene straight out of Currier & Ives: A dramatically lit stage with a radiant beauty seated at the Steinway. Behind her, a winter scene framed in a towering glass backwall, with snow swirling in the spotlights and then falling gently to rest on trees covered in a glistening white frosting.

The artist at the keyboard was no less captivating – Gabriela Montero, the Venezuelan piano prodigy who packs concert halls around the world with her fiery interpretations of the classical repertoire and improvisational performances. One could hardly ask for a more enchanting way to spend a January evening than seeing her in the intimate setting of Mixon Hall.

Montero, 43, gave her first public performance at the age of five. So her mastery of the classics, both technically and musically, comes as no surprise. What has made her a sought-after soloist is her style, a unique language and approach that puts a fresh gloss on whatever she plays. Well-known works are for her less finished pieces than musical palettes to be mixed, manipulated and rendered in new shadings and hues.

Montero has also fashioned a unusual career as a hybrid player who combines the best of the classical and jazz worlds. Improvisation was always a personal passion, but it was at the urging of the legendary Martha Argerich that she finally brought it to the stage, incorporating soaring flights of improv into her recitals. Her concerts now typically start with standard piano works and finish with long, unscripted solos based on melodies suggested by the audience.

Montero opened her CIM performance with Three Intermezzos (Op. 117) by Brahms, a staple in her recitals over the past year. Warm, lyrical and rhythmic, the piece was most interesting for its exacting sound. Many players can blaze through florid interpretations; Montero balances that with unexpected tempos, careful nuances and pianissimo moments that fade into the barest whisper. Her control of the music is absolute, an amazing accomplishment on the piano, a percussive instrument that offers none of the finesse possible on, say, a string instrument like the violin.

In Schumann’s Fantasy in C major Montero showed a lot of technical flash, with an uptempo first movement that matched the whirling spirals of snow behind her. The third movement started with what seemed like a barrelhouse rhythm, with vivid colors becoming muted for some tender, almost meditative passages before flaring back to life in what sounded like a final cascade of jazz chords. It was not what Schumann typically sounds like. But as a display of sheer skill coupled with bold, impassioned expression, it was breathtaking.

Montero came out for the second half of her performance with a microphone, and chatted a bit with the audience about why she loves improvisation – “a blank canvas is the ultimate freedom” – before asking for song suggestions. One caveat: The person proposing the tune had to be able to sing it. A whole section of the audience chimed in on a perfect starter, “Let it Snow.” Montero played the melody, musing on the possibilities, then launched into a barely recognizable romp through Baroque and classical treatments, finishing with a dazzling flourish.

Subsequent suggestions ranged from the opening notes of Parsifal to a popular tango to Clair de Lune. She handled them all in the same way, stating and then toying with the melody before diving into fluid, energetic variations on it. Though they were clearly spontaneous, her improvisations sounded more like finished pieces, with well-developed structures and motifs. And she showed command of a variety of genres, ranging across Latin, jazz and classical flavors and rhythms.

Montero says that she performs improv because she finds it the best way to connect with her audience. Coming from anyone else, that might sound disingenuous, an excuse for showing off skills that classical strictures do not allow. But her charming manner, openness in working with listeners and responding to their ideas, and her gift for invention made a strong mark at Mixon, where the audience was mostly fellow musicians. With them, as with fans around the world, she definitely struck a chord.

For more on Gabriela Montero: