Lucas Debargue

Lucas Debargue (Photo by Felix Broede/Sony Classical)

Lucas Debargue (Photo by Felix Broede/Sony Classical)

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Lucas Debargue is the latest phenomenon of classical pianism. Winner of the 2014 Adilia Alieva Piano Competition in Gaillard (France), he shocked the music world when at the age of 24, with three years of training, he won the Critics' Award at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Now a Sony artist, he makes his California debut in Berkeley this Sunday. Below is the transcript of our January 12, 2017 conversation with pianist Lucas Debargue.

(Our piece for San Francisco's NPR-affiliate, KQED, can be found here)

EH: At what age did you begin dabbling in jazz ? Is there a composer whose harmonies and dissonances are too difficult for you to reproduce by ear ? Can you play, say, Schoenberg ?

Debargue: I could not bear Jazz for a long, long time, actually. I started to become involved in the process quite late – I was 22 or 23. It was Thelonius Monk, actually. When I discovered his way of playing, his way of dealing with sound and rhythm, I became absolutely fascinated. I understood what he was doing, from the melody and the theme at the beginning, and how he transformed all of it.

I am fascinated by Schoenberg and would like to study him more. But there are some pieces, like opus 11 that I played already – not opus 25 where he goes really wild - it’s fine, it’s interesting because he’s considered very austere, very serious and logical. But if you see his piano pieces of the atonal dodecaphonic period, it’s not that austere, it’s very free the way he uses the dodecaphonic technique. It makes the thing very difficult to learn when it’s that free, when it’s less logical. It’s less logical than Webern, who is very short.

This question interests me much more than just playing faster than people. Questions of fingering, technique, etc., every pianist needs to find their own way to get it. You know, I train my ear daily to be able to listen and learn more difficult music. I learned for my new recital program the Second Sonata of Szymanowski, which is a very demanding piece. I played it in Japan, Russia, played it fifteen times in concert already. I learned it quite quickly, but I made it because I was able to analyze and understand the piece. It’s a chromatic system, it’s not always tonal, but I can understand how it’s made.

EH: In terms of musical memory, you must have a very strong mental image of colors and tones. How is your sequential memory ? Are you able to remember long passages at once?

Debargue: I’m a very distracted person. I have a very strong memory, but sometimes, I want to stay in the harmony. I cannot just let the music go out, I sometimes need to pause. It’s very important that every part of the piece exists strongly in me – I need to be able to perform every part of the piece that way. And this is not possible for me at the first listening. I will be intoxicated by one place more than another, differences of intensity, and what helps me to concentrate is to be the point of intensity inside the piece at a certain moment. I need time to change the point of intensity within the work so that I can have a global vision of the piece.

EH: How would you rank the abilities of jazz musicians ?

Debargue: For me, some of the jazz players at the beginning of the twentieth century are among the best musicians ever. They’re examples for me to follow. It’s not a question of style or genre or the kind of music you play, but a question of mastering music. To be a jazz improviser, you have to master many dimensions: harmony, rhythm, the science of composition, plenty of things that a lot of very talented pianists just don’t care about nowadays.

Today, you can come out on stage with a nice smile and the First Piano Concerto of Chopin and be considered a master of piano. For me, that’s totally meaningless. For me, it doesn’t mean anything to be a master of the piano. You can be a master of the piano without being a musician at all. There is the technical dimension, of course, moving the fingers quickly, knowing the scales, how it all works, etc. But when you listen to somebody like Art Tatum, one of the strongest pianists technically speaking, he does all of it for a reason. It’s never just to show off, and that’s very important to me.

When you listen to Charlie Parker for the first time, it’s a total mess. You get a headache simply because you have no idea why there are so many notes, and you don’t understand why it’s so complicated. He then improvises on top of it all, of course. But for me, what I love is that you can practice Jazz everywhere. You can improvise on it if you have the chords. You can improvise in the supermarket, on the street, on an airplane, etc. I like Bebop very much – Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and all of these other musicians. Erroll Garner is a world by himself. I put them before some of the classical players. Some of the classical players can’t do anything but learn and perform – they do so very nicely, but they’re not full musicians. I’m sure Liszt and Chopin would have been very interested in Jazz because they were composers, improvisers, and performers.

EH: There are many stories about you - some are romanticized, and others are likely plainly false. What were your first years before the piano like ?

Debargue: I was actually born in Paris, but I grew up in a small city, Compiègne, one hour north of Paris. I discovered classical music when I was eight or nine, listening to my parents’ albums. They didn’t have very much, as they weren’t trained classically. The first CDs I listened to were Mozart’s Symphonies No. 25 and 40, Bach Keyboard Concertos, and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. I was completely obsessed. I made myself able to read music very quickly, and also started copying some scores. I was very passionate about that. I continued listening, and my dad offered to have me study piano. He was very excited at the beginning.

I met a very kind person, Madame Meunier. It was a special situation because I didn’t want to do exercises, but I could already to quite a lot. I remember when I entered her class, I started showing her parts of Chopin Scherzi, Liszt Mephisto Waltz, etc. So I played these as I could -- they were not clean, a total mess! But there was something there, and I was totally committed. She accompanied me for four or five years, helping me with a way to approach the score. Then I went to high school and changed my mind completely. Things were totally different, I played bass guitar in a rock band, I went to Paris to study literature, and then at age 20 or 21, I went back to the piano with the goal of really practicing. I then met Rena, who prepared me for the Tchaikovksy.

When I met Rena in 2011, I didn’t agree with her way of working. It was bullshit (laughs). For me, it was impossible to practice in order to be better. But Rena is very passionate, has a strong temper as well, and so, we were able to create a privileged relationship together with music. I finally decided to listen and found it very interesting. I understood the way I could work, the way to put things together seriously. By 2013, we decided it was time to get into some competitions.

EH: There was a story that your family did not support you ?

Debargue: That was terrible. I know I talk a lot, and sometimes I say some things. Maybe you’re a parent yourself, but imagine how my parents felt reading something like that ? It doesn’t cost a journalist anything to write something like that, but it cost my parents a lot. Sometimes, I don’t mind when I say a lot of things.

It’s true they did not always support me. It’s true that sometimes I had to find my own way. My parents don’t know anything about the musical way, and I had to do some things like make my own way: give lessons, play in a bar, make ends meet in my own way. My parents couldn’t find any other way than their way to support me. And I would not have made it if I had followed them. Because they work in a completely different domain.

Of course they are proud now. They are very disquieted right now because they often don’t know exactly what is going on with me, as I’m traveling all the time. They miss me. I have a very special relationship with my parents. I have no problem with them. They were always cautious, but they knew I had something very strong for music and that I would probably not go to business school. This they knew for a very long time (laughs).

EH: Medtner is a composer esteemed by pianists and piano students, but even Vladimir Horowitz could do little to popularize his works. Is there another composer you adore who you believe should get more attention ?

Debargue: Szymanowski. The concert organizers don’t want it on the programs but audiences love it. It’s a big 20th century ‘Hammerklavier’. People are very impressed by this piece. It even ends in a Fuga! So I’d like to play more Medtner and Szymanowski. I’m sure a lot of Scarlatti sonatas are still not performed (laughs). There are even some Beethoven sonatas less played, like the 22nd. What I like to do, and what I did for the 2nd round, is to play pieces everybody knows. And then to play music people don’t know. I like to find bridges between different composers. This helps a lot for interpretation, and to see how composers communicate through time.

EH: Speaking of Horowitz, does he mean anything to you ?

Debargue: He is one of the gods of my teenage years, and is still for me, impossible to reach in some interpretations of Scriabin, for example. Sofronitsky as well, but for Horowitz, you really wonder how it’s possible to have such a sound. We are so lucky to have some of his concerts on video. I think about his last concerts, say, in London -- absolutely unbelievable when he plays First Ballade as an encore. I love the spirit of the man: he’s a joker, an actor, he’s a child, all at the same time. He’s very sober, very aristocratic when he’s at the keyboard. I think he was probably a bastard on many things (laughs), but I love this man. He’s just an exceptional artist.

EH: In contrast, many people have criticized the sterile sound of performers today. Cyprien Katsaris explained it as a certain obsession with academism. In your opinion, with every note being so polished, have performers lost the freedom to express what’s really demanded of them from the composer ?

Debargue: I will correct you on one word: it’s not freedom, it’s the truth. Music needs to live. If there is something boring on stage, there is no music happening there. Music cannot be boring. Chopin or Mozart never took a piece of paper to write a masterpiece with the idea of creating something boring for people. They’re always communicating something very strongly, something very deep from the soul. Music needs life. If you practice ten hours a day, you cannot put life into a performance. It’s obvious why. You have to breathe, share experiences with people, to know more than just the white and black keys.

About academism, I am the first to agree. I got a lesson today from Rena on Chopin’s Prelude Op. 45 and Scherzo No 1. We found something in the First Scherzo. It’s one of the most played pieces at competitions because it shows off the fingers. But actually, there are so many little details about accentuations, the puzzles in the melodic line, and how Chopin dealt with this - how there is this very fast, long line, and it shouts from the inside. It’s like hidden thunder -- it has to be frightening. To be frightening, you have to keep the tension and find the life inside the music and commit to it.

On the polish of everything today, this system of teachers presenting their students in competitions, being jury members at these competitions themselves, looking for certain ways to play, using references of playing instead of the score itself, it’s very painful for me. I would like to play more Liszt and more Chopin, but I feel desperate. Before I play one note, there are already so many people waiting to find something wrong with my playing. They will say, ‘Ah it's not the way it should be!’ But for me, what should be is the music. It’s not my freedom, my original idea. I try as much as possible to be honest, to find the best way to express what the music has to communicate. With Scarlatti, for example, I don’t play just one way because he’s a Baroque composer. Baroque is a huge thing and you can’t possibly associate it with all people who lived in that time. We are living in the age of Trump - does that mean we must all be little Trumps ?”

EH: A few years ago, we spoke with Leon Fleisher about the different kinds of music from different countries. He believes that the music of the great German tradition – Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, etc – answers certain metaphysical questions that others do not. What are your thoughts on this matter ?

Debargue: Yes, there is a tradition, organizing all the music before Bach, who then took all music before him into the tonal system and the great counterpoint tradition, etc. It’s possible to see a line through all of this. But I see a line through all of music. There is also a great tradition of French music. It’s not Ravel and Debussy – they are not exactly representative of traditional French music. Chausson is actually much closer to it, though less famous. He’s a very dark, very deep, real master of harmony. We also have Rameau, one of the greatest of composers. How he orchestrates, his theories of music, it’s all very important what he did for music. So there’s a great French tradition, too. I believe it’s a nationalist way of looking at things, and I believe music is universal. It’s one of the few things in this world I believe is universal, something anybody in the world can understand. As a performer, it’s my way of acting philosophically, in a way.

EH: Speaking of philosophy, the great Arthur Rubinstein, at the end of his autobiography, writes, “The proclamations of the new composers of music, painters and sculptors, that no emotion need be expressed belies the very reason for the artist’s existence,”. Is the purpose of art, for you, purely an emotional matter ?

Debargue: It’s emotional, yes. The aim is always emotional. Emotions open some hidden human faculties. If you only see the world in a logical, or economical, rational, social way, there are a lot of fields that are blocked. Before even saying that we use only 5% of our brains, if we are emotionally fed, we can open so many things on the inside. Just to be more conscious, to feel yourself as a human being and not a robot, music is a very intense way to communicate. The last Beethoven sonata is 30 minutes long, and there is everything within it. It’s a summary of an entire life. For me, there is so much pressure around in our lives. Suddenly, we discover something in music that is even more intense. You can then breathe, because you realize that there are even higher levels of intensity, and of course, peace.

EH: Is there such a thing as bad music ? What are your thoughts on pop music ?

Debargue: Oh, I think there are a lot of very interesting and good things in pop music. I would not shit on pop music. I think there are strong composers, singers, strong drummers, etc. For me, the problem is not shit. There’s a lot of shit out there (laughs). The problem is we are not talking enough about what is good. There is a lot of good, but the accent is put on the shit. Look at cinema. There are a lot of good movies, but people are always talking about the bad ones. Why do we do this ?

EH: What is the role of the music critic today ? We no longer live in a time where we have Robert Schumann writing reviews of Chopin and Brahms.

Debargue: Even Debussy was a music critic! For me, it’s a complex question. A critic uses words, a musician uses notes. A good critic should be a master of words, someone who really knows how to write. And for me, music criticism is the job of a writer, to make out of the sounds words. Some of the best things I’ve read about music are from Proust, who didn’t know very much about music. But if the music critic is simply there to compare musicians, or to say bad things about musicians, for me, that’s just the ‘playground’. It’s ridiculous and it cannot be considered seriously. Plenty of critics are probably frustrated people who can’t do 10% of what the musicians do. It’s too easy. It’s even strange that people who do these things don’t feel ashamed of doing so. Because there’s a lot to feel ashamed about when you live like this. So whatever…

EH: Is there anything about the life or business of being a musician that you would like music conservatories to teach their students ? What have you learned about success, management, travels, planning ?

Debargue: No, because each concert is a discovery. There are places I’ve been re-invited to, but the majority, every place is completely different, the teams organizing are completely different. When I arrive, it’s completely different. I make up my mind and make conclusions after. Two years ago, I could not foresee anything. I stay in my bubble, I stay in my work. I visit places some of the time, but I’m really a freak when I’m working. I’m very happy when acoustics are good, when conditions are great. But I don’t care. I’m happy when I’m working.

EH: Are you a compulsive practicer ?

Debargue: No, I’m not a compulsive practicer. I don’t practice each day, because I have a lot of other things to do. I cannot just sit at the piano and play. I have a lot of things going on as a normal person. I would like to be organized, to prepare a session of practicing, to practice from this time to this time at this time, and check the memory of this and that, and to prepare it all in my mind…

EH: A question I ask every pianist: which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand ?

Debargue: Op. 10 No. 4 (laughs). I know it’s very simple for many pianists, but for me it’s this one. No. 1 is difficult because if you play one wrong note, everybody hears it. It’s very difficult to play that one cleanly. The best players don’t’ play it cleanly (laughs). It’s maybe not so important. The second one is absolutely horrible, but there are some tricks about the way to attack the notes, to relax at some places. But what is hard with No. 4 is it’s very fast, it’s long, there are no breaks. There are some spots in the middle, 2-3-4-5, 2-3-4-5, with my long fingers, it’s just horrible! I can play it all separately, but when I put it together, it’s very difficult for me. Many pianists cheat in the middle section, using the left-hand. But Chopin wrote it to practice this part with the right-hand. Even the sixths, the octaves, Op. 25 No. 11 is horrible. It’s horrible. And very long! I guess many pianists answer similarly. It’s a question of hours. I’ve practiced O. 10 No. 4 for many years, and I just can’t get it to where I would like. So No. 4, and then Nos. 10, 11, and 12. They’re horrible, absolutely horrible!