Nostalgia is a powerful force in music. Dead musicians are worshipped, established training methods deeply cherished. Both create, in effect, standards and expectations within a genre.
So how does a gangly, bespectacled former employee of a Parisian grocery store enter Moscow’s prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition with just three years of serious training under his belt, and walk away with the Critics’ award, Fourth Prize, a recording contract with Sony, and a burgeoning international career?
You'd have to ask Lucas Debargue.
"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 is totally meaningless," Debargue tells me over the phone from France, a couple weeks before his sold-out West Coast debut Feb. 12 in Berkeley. "You can be a master of the piano without being a musician at all."
Suffice it to say, the pianist is not one to hold back. Incredibly polite, his tone is one of conviction, like a philosopher who’s been bottling it inside for years. Add to that well-circulated stories of his not owning a piano (true), his parents being unsupportive of his dreams (untrue), working part-time at a supermarket to support himself (true), and what you have is a wave of international intrigue.
“We, Russian members of the jury, loved and supported him,” said Boris Berezovsky, winner of the 1990 Tchaikovsky competition, on Russian radio after the 2015 event that made Debargue a star. “However, the foreign members of the jury didn’t accept him. They kept saying that he is unprofessional and pushed him down with all conceivable means, fair or unfair.”
At 26, Debargue is a befuddling case of musical potential. His talent is real; his training, mysterious; his artistry, at times arrestingly beautiful, especially in Medtner. Not since Ivo Pogorelich in 1980 has a pianist garnered more attention for, essentially, not winning a competition.
Born in Paris, Lucas Debargue grew up in Compiègne, an hour north of the capital. There were no musicians in the family, and it wasn’t until the age of nine that he discovered classical music albums in his home. He taught himself to read music, copied out scores, and at 11, entered the Conservatory of Compiègne in the class of one Madame Meunier.
"I remember when I entered her class," he says. "I started showing her parts of Chopin Scherzi, Liszt 'Mephisto Waltz,' etc. I played these as I could -- they were not clean, a total mess -- but there was something there, and I was totally committed."
The commitment lasted only four years. In high school, he joined a rock band and played bass guitar. Between the ages of 16 and 19 -- considered crucial years of a pianist’s development -- Debargue seldom touched a piano. Instead, he studied literature in Paris, and for two years, worked part-time at a supermarket.
At the age of 20, he took his raw talents to Rena Shereshevskaia at the Conservatoire de Rueil-Malmaison. She remains his teacher to this day, at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris.
"I didn’t agree with her way of working [initially]. I thought it was bullsh-t," laughs Debargue. "[But] 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."
"Some competitions" included the 2015 International Tchaikovsky -- historically, one of the most prestigious competitions for pianists, boasting former winners like Van Cliburn, Grigory Sokolov, and a pianist of growing renown, Daniil Trifonov.
Barry Douglas, another member of the 2015 jury -- and himself a former winner of the 1986 competition -- says Debargue made a memorable impression on him at the Tchaikovsky.
"I can’t divulge what the musings of the jury were at the time due to confidentiality agreements, but Debargue struck me as being a talented young man with a great future," says Douglas. "His musicianship was full of originality and there were many things to marvel at."
Even with a hung jury, among the "things to marvel at" were Debargue’s jazz improvisations, both onstage and behind the scenes. An omnivorous music consumer, Debargue discovered Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and Erroll Garner sometime between the age of 22 and Moscow, and picked up enough of the art form to support himself playing in jazz clubs.
"For me, some of the jazz players at the beginning of the 20th century are among the best musicians ever," says the pianist. "It’s not a question of style or genre or the kind of music you play, but a question of mastering music.”
In this sense, Debargue -- a jazz aficionado who forsook the traditional route of classical training -- rather ironically embodies the freedoms and improvisatory practices of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, perhaps more so than the majority of classical artists playing today. He learns everything from Bach to Schoenberg by ear, first. Then he streamlines the various sections in his mind, and refines his ability daily.
"Some of the classical players can’t do anything but learn and perform -- they do so very nicely, but they’re not full musicians," says Debargue. "I’m sure Liszt and Chopin would have been very interested in jazz because they were composers, improvisers, and performers."
While he’s made a name for himself as a classical pianist in part thanks to recognition from the old guard, Debargue doesn’t agree with the established order -- the competition jurors who adjudicate their own students, the academic disputes of style and authenticity. His criticisms are many.
"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," says the pianist. "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?”
With his powers of communication at the piano, the fury of his development and the unabashed willingness to point out deficiencies in the field as he sees them, the case of Lucas Debargue is understandably compelling. It may also be the kind of thing we’ve missed: the artist who holds his ideals with such conviction that he's willing to upset the established order to explore new territory.
It’s all wonderfully mysterious and attractive -- the kind of thing that, given a few decades, will make us feel nostalgic.