Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 January 2020

After stacking shelves, Lucas Debargue is ruling the world of classical music

Speaking to us before his Abu Dhabi Classics performances, Debargue says staying true to himself is what counts

Lucas Debargue burst on to the scene in 2015 during an international classical competition in Moscow. Courtesy Xiomara Bender
Lucas Debargue burst on to the scene in 2015 during an international classical competition in Moscow. Courtesy Xiomara Bender

Lucas Debargue is the Will Hunting of the classical music world. Much like the secret genius played by Matt Damon in the 1997 Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting, French pianist Debargue burst on to the scene seemingly out of nowhere in 2015 when he came fourth in the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

The unknown Frenchman, who was 24 at the time, stunned audiences with his revelatory takes on music by renowned composers such as Ravel and Mozart.

It was immediately clear that Debargue was no ordinary talent. His performances seemed to neglect standard technique and precision to focus on feel and sound. Such an approach gave Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit a new sense of mystery, while the Frenchman’s take on Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 7 was simply rapturous.

The international music media clamoured to find out who the boy wonder was. What they discovered was a story of triumph over adversity. Debargue was raised by parents who refused to help him nurture his musical talent and he appeared to drop out of music for years. He later moved to Paris to pursue a relationship that didn’t work out, slept on his friends’ couches and earned a living by stacking supermarket shelves and playing in piano bars.

But his talent would not go unrecognised for ever and Debargue was convinced not to abandon the piano. He began to train under Russian piano teacher Rena Shereshevskaya, who took him under her wing in 2011 and prepared him for the competition in Moscow.

It is a great story but Debargue is growing weary of it. Speaking to The National before performing in the UAE with the Russian National Orchestra tomorrow and on Friday, as part of the Abu Dhabi Classics concert series, he says never considered his rise to be some sort of fairy tale. Instead, he says he has always followed his own path.

“Look, there is a certain amount of melodrama that comes with the way the press or the marketing people talk about me,” he says with a barely concealed sigh. “But I am OK with it for the most part. As long as it inspires some sense of confidence in people then that is OK.”

Debargue says he never viewed himself as unlucky, but simply took life as it came. He says that not being trained as a musician from a young age meant that he developed a healthy curiosity for all genres.

During our free-flowing conversation, we touch upon composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, as well as pioneers such as Prince. “I look at myself as a 21st-­century musician,” he says. “This means that I cannot ignore jazz or pop music. They may be recent but they are part of our musical history and it has to be considered. If you think about Mozart and Haydn, they really cared about the pop music of their time – classical music was very much connected to the popular music of their time.

“And the division between classical and popular music really started in the 20th century when audiences began splitting into different genres. I find it ridiculous that this has happened.”

That doesn’t mean Debargue is heading towards a crossover music career similar to that of big-selling Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi. “I am not a fan of his,” he says.

If played well with passion and honesty, Debargue says classical pieces such as Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21 can still be transformative. “I can speak from experience because this piece changed my life,” he says. “I heard it when I was 10 years old and I had no real knowledge of this music. All I knew at that time was that this music opened up a whole world in my brain and I wanted to live in it. I believe that classical music can still do that today.”

Debargue says he hopes he can inspire a similar reaction among audiences at every concert, including his UAE debut tomorrow. His performances with the Russian National Orchestra at the Cultural Foundation is the latest in a series of high-level concerts he has racked up during the past three years, which include performances in renowned venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York, St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall and the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris.

While the pianist admits that such gigs earned him a level of respect from people within an initially sceptical classical music world, Debargue says they have not had an impact on his freewheeling approach to his career.

“I am not viewed now as some new sensation or the new animal in the zoo any more,” he says with a chuckle. “While I am satisfied that my achievements are being considered, I never cared about that. I care even less now, to be honest.

“I am not doing this to be the best or the strongest or the one who makes the fewest mistakes. It is all about being creative and finding all the different ways to express myself. If I do that I am happy.”

Updated: October 9, 2019 01:44 PM