Pianist Louise Bessette reflects on a career of making contemporary music matter

Louise Bessette. Photo: Pierre-Étienne Bergeron.

Louise Bessette is thinking about her career these days.

One of the leading pianists of her generation has reason to reflect on the past three decades.

She has just been recognized by the Governor General with an award for a lifetime of achievement in the performing arts. It’s not a small thing. She will be part of a week of celebrations in Ottawa culminating with the annual gala at the National Arts Centre on April 27.

“It’s really a wonderful honour,” she said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “There is also quite a lot of emotion. Since I learned I would receive this award I have been thinking about when I started to learn the piano. I have been thinking about my first teachers, those first competitions and my first concerts.”

Bessette was five when she started.

“I am the youngest of four children. My oldest sister was learning piano at that time so we had a piano at home. And my mother and my grandmother played the organ at Eglise de la Visitation in Ahuntsic” in the north end of Montreal.

It’s where she lives today.

“My mother was born in the area.” Moving there in 2000 was a natural decision, she said. It has been a good place to raise her son Antoine with her husband Sylvain Savard.

But we get ahead of the story.

Her start in music was both a happy story and a sad one, she said.

“My brother, the only boy of the family, was born three years before me. He has an intellectual handicap but my parents didn’t discover it when he was a baby and for a few years they didn’t know what his problem was.

“He started to go to school but it was difficult for him so my mother would spend every evening helping him with school work.”

Meanwhile, three year old Louise was listening and learning. By the time she started elementary school she could read, write and do some math.

“After a few months, the principal told my parents I was bored at school.”

The principal suggested the young girl could do something outside of school.

“My parents thought she’s young, only five. Maybe she could learn to play the piano.”

That’s how it started. It was a hit right away.

“I liked it very much and I remember going to my lesson every Saturday morning and it was fun. It was always a lot of work but it was kind of easy for me.”

By age 12, Louise was admitted into the Montreal conservatory and that set the course.

“At conservatoire I discovered a lot of young people like me who were learning music and practicing a lot. It became my life at that time.”

She continued at the conservatory until 1982.

“My teacher, Raoul Sosa, told me it would be a good idea to go to Paris.” Sosa knew she had been mastering the music of the French composer Olivier Messiaen and he thought she might study with Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife.

“I wrote her a letter, telling her I was studying with Raoul Sosa and that I was interested in studying with her.”

She had just won a major competition and had played a lot of Messiaen’s music during the event. She told Yvonne Loriod that.

It worked. Loriod agreed to teach her.

“I moved to Paris and I was thinking I was going for one year to study with her.”

She thought that if she liked it she might stay longer. Turns out she liked Paris a lot and stayed in the city until 1996.

It helped, that first year, that she obtained a Canada Council grant to study overseas. It also helped that the council has a studio for artists in Paris. Bessette had the use of the studio, which is located in front of the Seine River, for the year. “It was fantastic.”

“I never had the chance to play for Olivier Messiaen because the young pianists worked with (Yvonne Loriod). But I did meet him a few times. Sometimes I would go to their place, ring the doorbell and Messiaen would answer the door. Those were wonderful moments.”

She was and remains captivated by Messiaen’s music and was instrumental in the creation of a massive performance of the composer’s work in Montreal in 2008, the 100th anniversary of his birth..

“First of all I think that his writing for piano is wonderful. The sound is very rich and  full of colours. I like also the birdsong that he includes in his music. He was very close to nature as I am.” Bessette loves to holiday at the seashore or in the mountains.

That she likes the music of a giant of the second half of the 20th century is not really surprising. But Bessette is also known for being a champion of contemporary repertoire, especially Canadian repertoire and that’s more unique and important. The list of composers who have written for her is long. It includes: Serge Arcuri, Lorraine Desmarais, François Dompierre, José Évangelista, Nicolas Gilbert, Michel Gonneville, Marc Hyland, Alain Lalonde, Maxime McKinley, Silvio Palmieri, Isabelle Panneton, Sean Pepperall, Serge Provost, Anthony Rozankovic, Raoul Sosa and André Villeneuve. And that’s just some of the Canadians. French composers Claude Ballif, Bruno Ducol, Jacques Lejeune and Costin Miereanu have also composed works for her.

“I can say that I like music from all periods but I am always curious to discover new things not only in music but also when I travel and go to a restaurant I’m always looking to try something different, the speciality of the country. I like to discover things.”

When she was studying at the conservatory, Bessette, started to play works written by living composers.

“I realized it was a very rich  experience to play their music for them, to perform with the composer in the audience.

“After awhile some composers started to write for me. That is a great privilege.

“After many years I realized that it was important for the composers that I was performing their music. I was always very proud that when I would perform in Europe or in Asia I would have music written by Canadian composers in my suitcase.”

She said she also always tries to play a new work more than once.

Today Bessette is back at the conservatory where she is a professor. She has nine students and enough flexibility to maintain a concert schedule.

And she has students writing her to request a chance to study with her.

“Last year this young pianist from France wrote to ask permission to study with me” because of her connection to Messiaen’s music.

“Sometimes young pianists write and ask to play a piece of music for me once or twice before a concert or a competition. It’s a pleasure to share my experience with them.”

Teaching, concerts, family life and travelling now fill a well-balanced life.

“I feel that I have time to do everything that is important to me.”

Sadly both her parents have passed away. Her mother died 1999 when her son was a month old.

“I was afraid she wouldn’t live long enough to meet my son but she did. My father passed away two years ago. My parents were proud of me and I think a lot about them,” especially now.

She eventually left Paris for love and the desire to be closer to her parents.

“I still go to Paris at least once a year to performing and to visit friends. It is my second home.”

Her son Antoine is carrying on the family tradition. He is finishing CEGEP and plans to study music at the Universite de Montreal. He is a cellist and interested in composition and conducting.

But before all that there is a party in Ottawa to attend.

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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.