Lucas Debargue, 26, did not start formal musical training until he was 20, after a music professor heard him play at a music festival in his hometown in France. He makes his U.S. debut with Seattle Symphony Nov. 17-19.
There is a pattern to most stories about virtuoso instrumentalists.
The narrative typically begins with a future soloist displaying an aptitude for music at a very young age. The child’s raw talent is recognized. A teacher becomes involved. Years of practice and sacrifice at a music academy follow.
That preteen might have a debut with a symphony orchestra, and a few years later a first-place triumph at a competition or two, launching a promising career.
Seattle Symphony: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4
7:30 p.m. Thursday, noon Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, (Nov 17-19) at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; tickets from $22 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org.)
Little of that resembles the story of Lucas Debargue, a 26-year-old French pianist who became a sensation after a controversial fourth-place win in the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where he performed for the first time in his life with an orchestra. (Several judges loudly declared he deserved a bronze or even the silver medal.) He had begun formal studies in music at age 20.
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Now a long way from being an unknown, Debargue is making his debut with a U.S. orchestra Nov. 17-19 in Seattle. A native of Compiègne, north of Paris, Debargue will perform Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in Benaroya Hall.
Music critics for British newspapers, in attendance at the Tchaikovsky Competition piano finals in July 2015, wrote that Debargue’s last-place win reflected dismay at his unorthodox background as a largely self-taught musician.
But the competition’s chairman, conductor Valery Gergiev, had a different view, breaking protocol by inviting Debargue to play in the winners’ gala in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Reached on tour in Germany, Debargue shrugs off what many would consider a remarkable memory.
“Putin had the right to attend the gala concert as a normal listener,” he says.
There isn’t much about Debargue’s recent experiences in the limelight that impresses him. Not that he is ungrateful for his success in the months since the finals. (He has recorded two albums for Sony Classical and is performing constantly in the U.S., Europe and Asia through August.)
But while he understands the novelty to outsiders of his personal history with music, he chafes at fascination with his comparatively late, fiercely independent decision to develop a natural talent on his terms.
Born to a nonmusical family in 1990, Debargue, at age 11, loosely began piano studies at school.
“I met a very nice pedagogue who was not trying to put me in a box and tell me what to do with a piano,” he says. “She let me go my way. I was quite undisciplined and could not bear practice. For me it was absurd and I just wanted to play what I wanted to play.”
In high school, Debargue’s devotion to piano dropped off until he stopped playing all together. He later pursued a degree in art and literature in Paris, joined a rock band and worked in a grocery store.
After a three-year break from the instrument, Debargue played at a hometown festival, and his brilliance caught the attention of Rena Shereshevskaya, a Russian professor of music. In Debargue, Shereshevskaya saw the potential for a great interpreter of piano repertoire.
“What was difficult for me was to embrace the program, to select the pieces and prepare them at a professional level,” he says. “The first person to teach me this was Rena. When I began working with her in 2011, it was quite hard. I didn’t learn the pieces exactly, and was not precise. It was difficult for me just to open the score and look at it. I had already the passion of the music and piano, but she gave me the passion of the score. She taught me how to prepare for a concert, to get ready.”
Debargue maintains it’s the music that matters, but he knows his origins will continue to make a good tale.
“In a way, it’s none of my business, it’s beside the point. I’m just here to play. There will be some people who come to hear, and others because they are excited by the story. It’s my job to bridge the two with music. The pressure starts when they listen.”