Louis Lortie

Pianist Travels the Worlds of Beethoven and Mozart

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Montreal-born Berlin-based pianist Louis Lortie has been an occasional soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra since 1991. Next weekend he’ll return to perform some popular fare, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor.” It was the composer’s last word on that genre.

In a telephone interview from Atlanta, where he was preparing to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Lortie, 54, discussed the differences between the two composers, working with conductors and talking to the orchestra.

Q • How do you shift gears from Mozart to Beethoven?

A • It’s a very different world, but that’s the beauty and the difficulty of it. I think that for most people, including most musicians, Beethoven is the most familiar. They tend to have a deeper relationship with Beethoven, which is strange; Mozart is as popular as Beethoven. I think it goes back to their school days: they play Beethoven concertos as students. Sometimes it shows in the rehearsal. Sometimes the conductor has to remind them that Mozart and Beethoven are not in the same music world.

Q • How do you approach Beethoven?

A • (Beethoven’s music) is much more of a confrontation or opposition of feelings and ideas with the orchestra part than (with) Mozart. If you look at it philosophically, it’s man versus the world; Mozart is more like a conversation between beings.

Of course, Beethoven in his first concerto is much closer to Mozart than his last concerto. There goes this huge cadenza at the beginning of the concerto; it’s a big statement to have the soloist impose himself before the orchestra plays. But it was about time for that to happen. It was quite a breakthrough.

Q • They’re not that far apart in time, but Beethoven pulls far away stylistically.

A • The French Revolution just changed the way people looked at things, the way they repeatedly asked for more freedom. In a way, Beethoven is doing a metaphor, with the soloist asking for more rights, more freedom.

In Mozart’s time, there was no conductor. It was Mozart at a keyboard, with the orchestra around him. It’s starting with Beethoven that it’s so different, so that you suddenly need the conductor. That’s where all our troubles started! (Laughs.)

Q • How do you work with conductors?

A • When I play with an orchestra, we’re getting to speak, as much as possible, a common language. For me, it’s fascinating to see the conductor convey that to the musicians.

Q • Do you ever speak directly with the players?

A • This week (in Atlanta), the conductor is a friend of mine, and I could talk directly to the orchestra. That is very, very rare; usually, conductors don’t like that. There is a problem with hierarchy. Most times I will just have a discussion with the conductor, and he will convey that to the orchestra.

Q • Why is that? Is it a turf thing?

A • Any job that involves power can be. We can easily be dictators with an instrument. You don’t have to be psychological (when playing) an instrument, but you have to be psychological all the time with a group of 80 or 90 musicians who may be in a bad mood or not feeling well that day. I have studied conducting — I have conducted — and it’s not an easy job. I always tell young people to learn the trade of the conductor.

Q • “Know the enemy”?

A • (Laughs.) Yes, but also to collaborate, to know exactly what conductors are going through. I think it’s important. Then you understand much better what’s going on in the rehearsal and with them. This is big room music, not chamber music.

Q • How much time do you typically get with a conductor before rehearsals begin?

A • As much as he or she wants. I’m interested in taking time to discuss things, but they are the master of the time.

Q • What if you disagree?

A • We cope — and in Beethoven, actually, it can be fun to see the conductor and soloist fighting. But it’s better when we agree, or agree on disagreeing. You never know what’s going to happen.

My take on it is that I’m always open to new ideas. It’s a challenge. We play over and over the same compositions; for conductors to have always the same ideas would be very boring. It forces me to think about my own ideas and be flexible. With age, we have to watch that. We’re not as flexible as we used to be; we’re stuck in old patterns.

Q • You had to cancel your last scheduled appearance in St. Louis two years ago because of an accident. How did you cope with that?

A • I had to stop completely for four months. I broke my left arm; I had to go to physiotherapy. Everything has a good side, though; it made me aware that staying fit is very important. It forced me to do stretches and special exercises. That is also important, because I spend a lot of time traveling and being in uncomfortable positions.

When you have to do something, you do it; afterward, you pay a certain price for it. You have to be very careful what you eat, what you drink; you have jet lag; you’ve got to be very disciplined, especially when playing an instrument. It shows immediately when the synchronization is not optimal.

Q • Do you have any particular memories from your performances in St. Louis?

A • The hall is so beautiful; the acoustics are so wonderful. It’s one of the best. And the orchestra is great.

I remember playing a matinee; there were two young music students in the front row, with a big score. Of course you always notice that when you come to play. As it happened, I hit a wrong note in the bass in a difficult passage, and one said very loudly, ‘Look, he hit the wrong note!’ and pointed out where it was in the score.

The new generation is a little bit over-obsessed with a certain type of technical perfection. Some young people only listen to wrong notes. We surround ourselves with a certain kind of technical perfection, but we’re not technology. People don’t play like this in real life. It’s like our personal lives: we get married, we get into relationships, we assume it’s going to be perfect – but of course it’s not. The music is so much more than the notes.


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