Louis Lortie tackles Chopin one last time

Louis Lortie will be in Southam Hall playing Chopin's etudes and preludes in recital on March 31. Photo: Elias

In 1986, at age 25 or so, the world renowned Canadian pianist Louis Lortie recorded all of Chopin’s demanding etudes.

Three decades later he’s tackling them again (with the Preludes added just because. That’s 52 pieces of music folks). But now as the star pianist approaches his 60s (he’ll be 58, April 27), he said, in an interview with Artsfile in advance of his 8 p.m. concert on March 31 in the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall, that this current series of concerts will likely be the last time he tackles these works together.

Ambitious programs have been a feature of Lortie’s career. It’s a trait he learned very early, he said illustrating that comment with a story from his youth.

“When I first went to Europe to study with a great master I came to his class and he had something which I had never heard. He held reunions with all his students once a week.”

That teacher was Dieter Weber. Lortie said Weber had a huge double living room in his home in Vienna.

“All the students would be in one part of the room with his grand Steinway and he’d be in the second half of the room sort of sitting in the dark just listening. There was an eerie feeling to that. I guess it was supposed to be a pre-concert situation in which you played for your colleagues. That is tougher than playing for a normal audience because everyone is judging you. Then you have the teacher in the dark in the other room.

“Then, a little kid, I wasn’t old myself, I was 16, he was like 13 years old, came in sat at the piano and played the whole book of Chopin etudes like it’s just nothing.”

When Lortie was studying in Montreal, playing two or three etudes at a time was a big accomplishment.

“I thought, ‘I’m in another dimension’. It just stimulated me. It set a different standard and set different goals.”

Ironically, Lortie lost track of the young player under recently when he joined the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Waterloo, Belgium, as resident artist and teacher.

“I needed an assistant and a friend suggested ‘Why don’t you ask for Avo (Avo Kuyumjian). So we reconnected.” Kuyumjian is also teacher at the Music Chapel.

These days, though, Lortie’s ambition is tempered by time.

“We are all getting older. There is a time for certain things at certain points in your life, so I try to listen to the evolution of where I am with my age and development.

“I think this will be my last tour with this repertoire. I’m getting older and I feel that I have to be very careful with technical challenges. I can still do it but I get a little bit more tired after concerts. It’s not as easy as it used to be.”

“I don’t want people to say: ‘Oh, he’s still good at it but …’. I want to avoid that and play what I can play at my age.”

Six years ago Lortie had a video made while he was playing the etudes.

“I was very curious when I did it. I was scared my tempos were slower. So I videoed them to compare. There were almost no differences in the fast etudes. Opus 10. No 1 No. 2. I was happy about that. I was still able to push these tempos as they should be.”

Looking way back at his first recording of Chopin, he says there was a certain freshness in his playing that can be found in youth. His style have evolved and matured since then and after a lifetime of playing at all of the music of Chopin.

“It’s never pyrotechnics. With Chopin it’s always a very pure musical aim. Technique is always transcendent. It’s not like in other repertoire. If you do a wrong note in Chopin it’s not like in Mozart or Bach (where a mistake stands out). There have been great players who have had a memory lapse and would reinvent some lines and it would still be great.”

Chopin would change his pieces all the time, he says.

“Sometimes he would scratch out a dynamic marking when teaching a student.”

Today one aspect of his musical life is assuming more importance. That is teaching.

“I have realized that I love to transmit things to others. I realized too that what gives me a chance to look at a lot of pieces that I haven’t played for ages. It’s great, of course because I don’t have to play them again immediately. .

“It gives me a chance to look at pieces I have never had a chance to work on. I have to study them in order to teach them and that’s another great opportunity.”

As well, he finds young performers bring  different perspective and new ideas.

One of those young musicians is Ottawa native and violinist Kerson Leong who is attending the Music Chapel.

“I’m such a fan of his. We have played together and recently I had to organize a private concert for a donor and I asked Kerson to play with me because I enjoy his musicianship so much. He is such a mature performer.

“It’s inspiring to see a young musician like this.”

Another aspect of being part of the Music Chapel is that the school organizes concerts and he finds “it’s a more convivial way of making music than being on tour. As you get older it’s nice to have a few place where you have your anchor.”

Lortie has two homes in Europe, one in Berlin and the other in the Lake Como area of Italy. In the latter area he is in the process of preparing his very first music festival which will take place this summer.

“This is the first time I have done this. It’s fascinating. I’ve had to meet so many people just to organize the logistics of putting on such an event. It’s huge.” He says a website will be launched soon to advertise the event.

He does like to get home to Canada to play. It’s particularly important to see his parents. “For me it’s great go back to Canada as much as I can.”

For tickets and more information, please see nac-cna.ca.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.