Touring pianist finds perfect fit

Louis Lortie discovered music through the piano. Photos: Supplied
Louis Lortie discovered music through the piano. Photos: Supplied
French Canadian pianist Louis Lortie loves mixing travel with his musical commitments. He talks to Rebecca Fox about exercise and balance.

When a pianist sits at a piano, it is pretty obvious what shape they are in, says Louis Lortie.

The French Canadian is passionate about keeping fit, saying it is essential to keep up his stamina to play and travel the world.

''Pianists are like athletes - there are some things that are built into the body, things that have to be done so the nerves and muscles react the right way.

 Louis Lortie rehearses in New Zealand in preparation for his New Zealand tour.
Louis Lortie rehearses in New Zealand in preparation for his New Zealand tour.
''Once you have built that up, you are set for life.''

However, it requires the musician to keep up the training, especially as they get older.

''It's a lot of challenge to keep up that stamina. You have to be very strict, very good.''

Lortie (60), the Master in Residence at The Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel of Brussels, is thankful he has escaped any major ailments during his career but believes that is because he is ''extremely, extremely careful'' of his physical state.

A day sitting on a tour bus recently as he travelled to Cape Reinga was difficult for him as he likes to exercise every day.

''I like hiking, cycling, swimming. It's very important as I sit down for so many hours. It was painful sitting on that bus all day. If I don't do a couple of hours every day I get a little distressed.''

It is one way he copes with travel schedules which see him performing around the world.

''It's still marvellous to go to far away places like New Zealand and meet new people. It's very inspiring.''

The other is to find time in his busy schedule to be a tourist.

''I try to mix discovery and work which is really, really nice. It means I get to see more than just a hotel room and a concert hall.

''It's nice to mix both. It doesn't happen all the time.''

Having balance in his life goes right back to his early days as a pianist.

Lortie did not grow up in a musical household and only discovered the piano when his family moved into a house that had one in the basement.

He discovered his grandmother had played the piano for many years. She began to teach him the basics.

His family recognised his interest in the piano and got him a teacher.

''To be able to express so many things was wonderful. My family was very reserved but here I had the gamut, a new world of emotions and feelings right there in front of me.

''I was really hooked. It was very clear to me it was my main interest.''

His first professional public appearance as a soloist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra was as a 13-year-old.

As a teenager, he had some big decisions to make as he was faced with so many options.

It was difficult, he says, as his parents did not know much about the world he was about to enter.

''I got some good counselling and good information. It is not really a normal thing for someone so young to make rational decisions.

''I wasn't a pushy kid.''

He decided not to pursue a concert career immediately, instead continuing to compete in competitions and study history.

''It didn't upset my lifestyle. It was a nice progression compared to the young artists who now become famous early and are under so much pressure.''

Lortie studied in Montreal with Yvonne Hubert (a pupil of the legendary Alfred Cortot), in Vienna with Beethoven specialist Dieter Weber, and subsequently with Schnabel disciple Leon Fleisher.

He won first prize in Canada's two premiere competitions, the Canadian National Music Competition and the CBC National Competition. He also performed with the Toronto Symphony in 1978 and joined the orchestra in a subsequent tour of Japan and the People's Republic of China.

In 1984, he won First Prize in the Busoni Competition and was also a prizewinner at the Leeds Competition.

''I didn't really start travelling the globe until I was 25 which was a nice age.''

He recommends anyone considering a concert piano career to put it off until they are older.

''It's much more human.''

In the past three decades Lortie has performed with many of the world's great orchestras, including the BBC Symphony and Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France and Dresden Philharmonic in Europe, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Dallas Symphony, San Diego Symphony and St Louis Symphony in the United States.

In Canada, he regularly performs with major orchestras in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Calgary.

He has also made more than 45 recordings with Chandos Records, including music from Mozart, the complete piano works of Ravel, Chopin's Preludes and Etudes and a complete Beethoven sonata cycle.

Together with fellow pianist Helene Mercier, as the Lortie-Mercier duo, Lortie has also showcased the repertoire for four hands and two pianos in the concert hall and on several best-selling recordings.

These days he is based in Lake Como, in Northern Italy, where he enjoys the small-village lifestyle - when it's not flooded with tourists in the summer.

''The lifestyle is amazing; you can take time to do everything, the culture is incredible. Unfortunately it has been invaded by tourists, but the winter season is wonderful, there are much less people.''

He runs a music festival there, LacMus, inviting artists from around the world to perform with him.

''It's a chance to spend some time in one of my favourite spots.''

The festival also gave him a chance to experience the behind-the-scenes management of a chamber music event and the challenges of securing sponsorship.

''I was not really aware of the 'business end' of music before. But it's very nice to get people interested in the same passion and want to help it grow and survive.''

Next year to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth in Bonn, Germany, Lortie will perform a complete sonata cycle in Montreal and Waterloo (Belgium) as well as a complete concerto cycle with the New-Jersey Symphony and Xian Zhang.

To see
Transfiguration, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Dunedin Town Hall, tomorrow 7.30pm

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