Much has been written about the young French pianist Lucas Debargue, a finalist in the 2015 edition of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. The concept of him being “self-taught” (until relatively recently) has been debated across a number of articles, together with his rather unusual technique (“Scales played with only the thumb and index finger and his pinkie sticking up as daintily as Hyacinth Bucket’s” – The Spectator, 18/7/15) and glorious sound. He’s not out of the traditional mold of the international competition winner (commences piano studies at a young age, undertakes rigorous study with a master teacher and progresses to the “Three C’s” of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto) – and he didn’t even wear a tie during the final! In an honest and touching interview with Ismene Brown of The Arts Desk, Debargue comes across as a sensitive and intellectual young man for whom music is profoundly important, not just in terms of beautiful sound, but also as a “a place to live in. It’s about real emotions, real sensations”.
Let’s just clear up a few inaccuracies. In ‘The Spectator’ article quoted above, he is described as “the man who came last”. He didn’t come last. He achieved what most can only dream of: he reached the final of the most prestigious piano competition in the world. That he did this following only four years professional study with a Russian master teacher (Rena Shereshevskaya) is remarkable. (And by the way, it doesn’t really matter that his scale fingering is unusual: there is no “one size fits all” fingering scheme, because hands and fingers come in different sizes.) Now everyone is asking what next for this extraordinary young man?
It is at this point that I start to worry for a talented and obviously sensitive young man like Lucas Debargue. He is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, young artist to be thrust into the limelight before he is ready. Unlike the other competition finalists, he has not undergone the long and rigorous traditional professional training which would prepare him for the concert platform: he still needs to hone his stagecraft and, more importantly, learn how to deal with the journalists, agents, promoters, and fans who besieged him as the competition progressed – and continue to. The classical music industry is not a particularly pleasant place, and the world of international pianism is highly competitive, almost ruthlessly so. At the big competitions, representatives from the big artist agencies are waiting to scoop up the winners and runners up, offering tempting contracts, a slew of international engagements, recording deals and more (look how much Martin James Bartlett, winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014, has done since his win, including several performances at the Proms, and he’s only just 19; he has, however, undergone a professional training in specialist music school and conservatoire). It’s true that success in an international competition can make an artist – but it can break one too. From the moment one chooses the life of the international concert pianist, one lives in the public eye: every performance and recording is held up for scrutiny, and one is under almost continual pressure to meet the expectations of agents, promoters, fickle audiences, critics and fans. The life of the concert pianist is tough, restrictive and lonely. In addition to the many hours of solitary practise, there is the traveling, nights spent in faceless hotels, fine historic cities viewed through a fog of fatigue, never having the option to be less than perfect, even if one is ill or tired, knowing that one is judged on one’s last performance (here I recall the unpleasant hoopla surrounding Ivo Pogorelich’s London concert in February). The pressure can be unbearable if one is not equipped to handle it. (Read Charles Beauclerk’s excellent and sympathetic biography of John Ogdon for some brutal insights into the life of the international concert pianist. For Ogdon, the piano was his saviour and his tormentor, and there is no question that the pressure of so much traveling to perform around the world contributed to his breakdown.)
Add to this that peculiarly British fascination with the maverick, the eccentric, the tortured genius with the unconventional “backstory”. We risk endangering Debargue further by holding him up as curiosity, instead of allowing him to develop and mature in his own time. There is something very authentic about his playing, his particular soundworld and his special and personal connection to the music which has clearly touched people.
Lucas Debargue plays Ravel – ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’
In his interview with Ismene Brown, Debargue talks of having few friends and little support from his family. His teacher was his mentor and supporter, encouraging him to take a tilt at the Tchaikovsky Competition and saying when he got through the first round “It doesn’t matter when you pass or not, it’s really good that you are here to play and I am grateful and proud of you.” He has yet to develop the necessarily resilience, thick skin and artistic temperament to survive the “wild west” of the international concert circuit, and I only hope that whoever he chooses to manage him, should he decide to go down that route, is sympathetic and puts his well-being before all else. Otherwise, I dread to think what might happen….
So please let’s allow him – and others like him – to develop at his own pace to emerge onto the international circuit, should he choose that path, when he is truly ready. To conclude this article, I think it is worth quoting a comment on Peter Donohoe’s piece for Slipped Disc about the competition (Peter was a juror this year):
Aside from all of this, what happens to each of these young artists remains to be seen. How will they carry on with their studies as musicians? Which repertoire will they cultivate? Will they develop chamber music careers, teaching, new works, recordings? This is what is most important as they begin to soul search and decipher how and what they will contribute to the world of music outside of the usual parameters. (Jeffrey Biegel)
View clips of Lucas Debargue’s performances in the International Tchaikovsky Competition