Lucas Debargue, a 24-year-old pianist who started formal piano studies not quite five years earlier, swept the imaginations of audience and judges alike at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition. He simply outplayed dozens of pianists who had spent years training for the moment. It was also the first time he had played with an orchestra (again, a barely believable fact), but his original interpretations of Ravel, Mozart and Tchaikovsky earned him a rare invitation to perform at the winners’ concert.
A year later, Debargue makes his Seattle Symphony debut on November 17–19, performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with conductor Mikhail Agrest. It will be his first appearance with a major orchestra in the United States.
“Lucas Debargue is one of classical music's most exciting artists and we’re thrilled to share his incredible artistry with our audiences,” said Seattle Symphony President and CEO Simon Woods. “He astounded critics at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition with his brilliant performances and creative interpretations. It’s a testament to the artistic vitality of our organization that he will make his U.S. orchestral debut at the Seattle Symphony.”
An oft-repeated story about Debargue is that he is a gifted, self-taught amateur who didn’t begin piano lessons until age 20 — which isn’t exactly true, as Debargue himself is quick to correct. His real start came when he discovered a collection of Mozart CDs when he was 10. Debargue says he found a teacher a year later, but clarifies, “he was not really a teacher. He was more a friend who introduced me to lots of music while I was at high school.”
Although he didn’t take traditional lessons, Debargue was learning to play the piano by ear. He would listen to music for hours, memorizing the scores and then learning to replicate what he heard at the piano bench. “One doesn’t ever learn by oneself, one learns from others. And the people who taught me were the composers and the great interpreters,” Debargue told Bertrand Boissard in an interview after the competition. “I spent my time downloading Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, and I lived entirely with headphones on, buried in this music.”
During high school, Debargue immersed himself in the study of literature to the point that he stopped playing piano altogether at the age of 16. He says he picked up the guitar and began playing with a rock band for a while. Later he began playing piano again, improvising at jazz bars and at the homes of his friends. He worked part-time at a grocery store for a few years to make ends meet after he moved to Paris.
“So what if I played piano in a bar and worked in a supermarket?” he told Ivan Hewett in an interview for The Telegraph. “This is all perfectly normal; I know many people who have the same story. If you move to the city you expect to earn your own living.”
Although Debargue is correct, he is an exception within the world of concert pianists. Most spend years practicing for hours each day. It was his friends who ultimately encouraged him to take the piano more seriously. He eventually found his way to the studio of Rena Shereshevskaya, who prepared him for the Tchaikovsky Competition.
Debargue’s unusual story sometimes threatens to overshadow his thrilling artistry. Although his playing is technically brilliant, what makes him exceptional is his approach to interpretation. It often sounds like he is improvising the score in front of the audience, the music coming to life as we watch. It might have something to do with his rejection of trying to recreate old performance styles.
“How can they, who have no idea of how life was at that time, pretend to play in the style of that time,” says Debargue in an interview with The Telegraph. “For me everything is in the written score, and it is my job to make that as clear as possible to the listener. That is the only thing that matters to me.”
Listening to Debargue is an uplifting experience, in part due to his unabashed love for music. He isn’t in love with the piano, or even a particular composer. “The piano is like a coffin, it’s just something mechanical,” Debargue told Boissard. “When you start putting life into this big machine, that’s when the music begins to appear.”
Lucas Debargue plays Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Seattle Symphony on November 17–19.BUY TICKETS
Posted on November 7, 2016READ MORE BEYOND THE STAGE