He did not win a coveted gold, silver or bronze medal when he performed at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 2015, but fourth-place fame was enough to score Lucas Debargue a record deal and a schedule packed with recital dates.

“Everything didn’t work how I would have liked,” says Debargue, “but I’m happy I made the finals. It’s life. I prepared very seriously and there are some good things and less good things and that’s it. We are not robots.”

Debargue — a mustachioed former supermarket clerk who became the fan favorite among viewers of the competition’s webcast — releases his second album for Sony Classical in September, featuring sonatas by Beethoven and Medtner, plus Bach’s Toccata in C minor. He says the career adjustment hasn’t been particularly difficult.

“Now I have this inner intensity that’s stronger than ever,” said Debargue in a telephone interview as he dashed from the Paris Metro to meet a real-estate agent. The pianist had just secured an apartment big and soundproofed enough to accommodate his own piano. “It feels very natural to prepare for concerts.” 

 

‘By forcing a bit and wanting to do things, then you can succeed.’

 

Debargue, twenty-seven, may offer hope to anyone who has sought a career change or who followed a new passion as an adult. Growing up near Compiègne, north of Paris, he says he did not touch a piano until the age of eleven. After two years of lessons at the town’s conservatory, he continued to tinker and study online videos before other teenage pursuits took priority. “There was no one in my environment to guide me in the direction of competitions or music schools,” Debargue says. “As a teenager I became able to play tricky things at the keyboard. By forcing a bit and wanting to do things, then you can succeed.”

By age seventeen, Debargue traded piano for the electric bass. He joined a rock band, read Balzac and Proust, and worked in a supermarket. After nearly four years away from the piano, his enthusiasm was rekindled by a fluke invitation to perform at a small festival in Compiègne. In 2011, he began more systematic training with Rena Shereshevskaya, a respected teacher at the École Normale de Musique in Paris. Debargue also taught himself jazz, funding his education with gigs at open-mic nights and hotel bars (he continues to play occasional jazz sets in recital settings).

Debargue first caught the public’s attention in 2014 when he took first prize at the Adilia Alieva Piano Competition in Gaillard, France. The Tchaikovsky Competition, however, was a bigger task: he had never performed with an orchestra, and some observers remarked on his unorthodox fingerings. But devotees heard a particular sensitivity and imagination in his playing of Ravel, Chopin and Scarlatti, which yielded a special citation from the Moscow Music Critics’ Association and an invitation to perform in the winners’ gala.

Debargue shrugs off questions about his late start. “If you look at Horowitz or Richter, none of them started at age three,”he notes. He deflects praise of his talent as well. “Maybe I am naturally gifted, but I cannot think about this,” he says. “I just think about following my feelings and being really grateful to the people who helped me on my way.” He is particularly drawn to other artists with strong personalities, and is gently critical of those who closet themselves in the practice room. “Musicians today care about playing all of the notes as fast as possible but they don’t especially care as much about the interpretation. That is the most fascinating part of the job.”

 

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & CultureSteinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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