André Laplante—A Fine Balanceby Lucie Renaud
/ March 16, 2005
Liszt's life was punctuated by glory and fame, that of Canadian pianist André
Laplante -- a Liszt specialist -- has been inked in the sweat and tears of
daily trials. Strongly grounded in the ever moving soil of existence, his
journey has been etched with joy, sometimes fleeting, sometimes more durable.
Delicate artistic choices have had to be made through the years. Over the years
he has grounded this atypical course in the joys of sharing his love of the
repertoire with his public and, more recently, with the coming generation of
pianists. Now in his fifties and at the height of his musical strength, he
looks back philosophically at past choices that have enabled him to play both
the Classical and Romantic repertoire with equal pleasure and ease, while still
preserving his individual touch.
Laplante was born in the small Quebec town of
Rimouski, where, like many musicians of his generation, he first encountered
the piano at the local convent. When his family later moved to the outskirts of
Montreal, he was able to continue his musical education at the École
Vincent-d'Indy (the music faculty of the Université de Montréal) with Yvonne
"I had a hard time adapting," he recalls. "At 14 I
found myself in a professional milieu where my teachers felt I had great
versatility. Accordingly, they suggested I work on Liszt and Rachmaninov,
partly for the dramatic effect."
He continued his studies at New York's Juilliard
School with Sascha Gorodnitzki and in Paris with Yvonne Lefébure. Among the
concerts he attended in Paris was a memorable one by Gilels. "I adored Gilels,"
he says. "I remember a concert in Paris where he opened with Mozart's Sonata K.
533. I'll never forget how it presented me with a rainbow of unbelievable
possibilities. Gilels could produce an extremely soft piano that could
be heard all over the hall. He was wonderful with the Russian school, but at
the same time could approach Mozart with incredible finesse and breadth. It
felt like crossing the ocean in one night."
Although Laplante already felt drawn to classical
composers, despite not focusing on them in performance, he continued his
prescribed round of training and the inevitable international competitions. He
made a good showing at the Jacques Thibaud Competition in 1973 and did the same
in Sydney in 1977. The following year he won the silver medal at Moscow's
Tchaikovsky competition, competing with 91 pianists. This catapulted him onto
the international stage, where he was immediately dubbed a "Romantic pianist."
The label stuck for several decades. "When you win the Tchaikovsky, there's no
going back," he says. "But I'd rather be known as simply a musician."
There followed concerts in Canada, the US (at Carnegie Hall among other
venues), in Europe, and Asia, including a lengthy tour at the invitation of the
Chinese People's Republic. Critics praised his virtuosity, "vigorous Romantic
intensity" (Chicago Tribune), and "rare poetic instinct" (The Guardian).
Laplante already felt that the ordinary musical career
path wasn't entirely to his liking. "I love the turn-of-the-century pianists –
Kempf and Gieseking playing Debussy, for example. It wasn't technically
perfect. Technological advances have caused a lot of confusion about
perfection. CDs are little gems of perfection. For artists who believe in the
need to play there are clear choices to be made. Some opt for a more technical
beauty. Others – and I'm one of them – decide to delve deeper. It may have
taken me longer to develop in this direction, but you have to maintain a
balance and conserve energy for the good things. It's difficult to evolve as an
artist while preparing your work and fitting everything into your concert
schedule. I would have had to do a lot of Russian, Romantic, post-Romantic and
20th-century repertoire. I love it but I needed something more anchored."
At this point he left Columbia Artists for personal
management and decided to invest a good portion of his time working on the
previously neglected repertoire. By working with pianists who specialized in
this category of music he would get to know its subtleties and confirm and
compare his own impressions, taking the time to adapt.
Invitations to perform didn't come so frequently, but
Laplante stuck to his new regime. The results speak for themselves. In January
2005 he played Mozart's Concerto K. 271 and Concerto for Three Pianos
with the Toronto Symphony.
Tuning into Mozart
"With Mozart, you have to imagine the court with its
wigs, wit, and flourishes, all of which are represented in the music. You have
to establish a fine balance between the objective and subjective approach. Some
years ago I thought I'd never be able to adapt to this style, but I found I
could do it. It was a real challenge, but to tell the truth I've played these
concertos and never felt so right, so spontaneous before. Without doubt it was
one of the best weekends of my life." Distinguished pianists who were present
that evening were amazed at Laplante's achievement.
Laplante is sharing his perpetual quest with a few
young pianists who either work with him in his studio or during master classes
at conservatories and universities. "It's important for a pianist to have both
talent and curiosity," he says. "I'm not very possessive: I encourage my
students to play for others, to get ideas before coming back, and to discuss
them. Eighty-five percent of what happens on the stage comes from the
intentions you've formed beforehand. If your idea is to do another small,
perfect concert, that's what the audience will hear. Everything depends on
research, the way you've worked, the questions you've asked yourself... The
more questions you ask, the more you free yourself of a fear of performing, and
as a result things become clearer. That's why I'm glad to be there as a guide.
Pianist Tristan Lauber, who continues to profit from
Laplante's advice on occasion, speaks of him with affection.
"He's a sincere musician, generous, very
straightforward, and very inspiring because he never stops researching. He
always sees the glass half full and always begins by putting the student at
ease. No matter what point I'd reached in preparing a work, I always came out
of these meetings more motivated and inspired than when I went in."
Laplante feels it's equally important to get mind and
body on the same track. "When I was a young pianist, people showed me how to
develop strength of mind, but they forgot the body. We must learn to channel
our energy, otherwise a kind of fear develops in us. It's also important to
bring mind and body together. We become obsessed with the keyboard, the
fingers, this and that -- and suddenly we aren't listening to ourselves. In
concert you must have the confidence to go before an audience and breathe,
presenting ideas and emotions clearly, because there's more to us than simple
logic. We can organize things, but we can't control the fact that we're
Laplante finds this fusion of mind and body in the
playing of pianist Richard Goode. "Why is Richard able to play the fugue of
Beethoven's Opus 106, which is positively unplayable? Because he hears
the phrase he wants to play and transmits it clearly. Richard was never a
superstar; he was always a musician's musician, because he knew exactly what he
was doing and was so immersed in music. That's what I wanted to do, what I
wanted to become. I greatly admire this type of career path." Tristan Lauber
unwittingly echoed this praise. "[Laplante] is a pianist's pianist. He has one
of the finest keyboard touches and still personifies the musician who is
preoccupied with producing a great sound."
Laplante views this delicate balance between two
poles, Liszt and Mozart – "my Arctic and Antarctic" – with relief and pride.
When asked if he would like to be remembered one or two centuries hence, he
says, "First of all, I dare to hope that I've given a lot through my music and
my teaching. I'd like to inspire people, perhaps, to think about the fact that
I was born in Rimouski, a little backwater, that I moved to another small
community on the outskirts of Montreal, that I learned music almost in spite of
myself, that I explored the classics much later in life, which wasn't easy,
that at times I didn't have much work and haven't had a career that went in one
direction only, but that in the end I found balance and incredible joy in
playing. You can always learn, be happier, communicate better. I'm no hero, and
I'm not interested in being employed. What I want is to help young people
understand that when you do what your heart desires, it's always worthwhile.
It's a question of letting go and finding your point of equilibrium."
André Laplante, who was inducted as Officer in the
Order of Canada, will perform in concert in Montreal on March 22, 2005, with
the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The program will include Concerto for Left Hand
by Ravel, another composer with whom Laplante has been much associated.
Information : http://www.osm.ca.
[Translated by Jane
André Laplante will lead a master class at 9 am on
March 18 in the Gabriel-Cusson auditorium of the Montreal Conservatory of Music