Louis Lortie on work–life balance, figuring out Fauré and avoiding Netflix

The Canadian pianist, who turned 60 in April, is on a hot streak.

The Canadian pianist, who turned 60 in April, is on a hot streak

Canadian pianist Louis Lortie is currently master in residence at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Brussels, and artistic director of the LacMus International Festival on Lake Como. (

"As musicians, our work is our life, and our life is our work," muses pianist Louis Lortie on the fleeting notion of work–life balance.

"We think about the music when we're sleeping," he continues. "It's non-stop and at the same time it's not work. The music is fed by our lives and our lives are fed by the music. It's like a huge circle from which you will not come out until you die [laughs]."

That, in a nutshell, is the tantalizing (if somewhat terrifying) life of an elite classical musician.

Lortie spoke with CBC Music mid-way through his month-long Canadian concert tour that began on May 3 with performances of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and will conclude on May 24 and 25 at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall with performances of Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In between, he's touring Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal with the TSO as the soloist in Franck's Symphonic Variations.

While it's a lot, it's also a pretty typical month in the life of Lortie, who turned 60 on April 27 and is at the height of his powers. The day after his birthday, he played all three books — 120 minutes — of Liszt's Années de pèlerinage at London's Wigmore Hall, a fitting way to mark his milestone, but not an intentional one, he's quick to point out.

"I think probably somebody at Wigmore Hall, while writing the notes, found out that the recital was the day after my birthday. So they put the title '60th birthday recital,' but it was a coincidence, nothing was planned."

Still, it's repertoire that's closely associated with Lortie — his 2011 recording of the work has become a reference for Liszt devotees — and a complete performance of it in a single recital is a feat of stamina that few pianists of any age will attempt.

More significant than this Wigmore Hall recital, according to Lortie, will be his performance of book 2 of Années de pèlerinage (along with music by Bach and Mozart) at this summer's LacMus Festival on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy.

A narrow cobbled street in the village of Campo in Tremezzina, Italy, leads to the shore of Lake Como where the piano is ready for a concert in the annual LacMus Festival. (Daniele Marucci)

"Some of the pieces from Liszt's Années were conceived right in front of the place where I will be playing, so that's really something," he explains.

Lortie is the artistic director of this one-week annual festival, which he co-founded in 2017 with conductor (and close friend) Paolo Bressan. The concerts take place outdoors in spectacular surroundings.

"It's both visually and aurally amazing because performances are done at villas or piazzas that have incredible views on the lake," explains Lortie, who has had a home in the area for nine years. "I never intended to do a solo appearance, but people said, 'For your 60th, you should do it.' And especially because there's one venue [Villa del Balbianello] where I had always dreamt of playing a solo recital, so I will do it."

The LacMus Festival also enables Lortie to provide performance opportunities to his students at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Brussels, a private institution offering high-level training for young classical musicians, where he has been master in residence since 2016.

"By an incredible coincidence, there's only one island in Lake Como, and it's right in front of where our festival is, and it symbolically belongs to Belgium," says Lortie. "It was a gift from Italy to Belgium after the First World War. It was given back to Italy, but there is still a flag of Belgium. And actually, we're going to have our first concert on the island, that will be quite an event."

The LacMus Festival begins June 26, but until then Lortie's got engagements in Italy and Germany, not to mention his residency with the TSO this month.

Saint-Saëns was played mostly by French pianists, and now it's sort of spilling over, the same with Fauré.- Louis Lortie

Lortie's bond with the TSO was further strengthened earlier this year when their recording of Vaughan Williams' Piano Concerto in C won the Juno Award for classical album of the year: large ensemble. He was also nominated in the same category for Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4, with the BBC Philharmonic and Edward Gardner.

"I thought I was probably the only person doing the complete survey of the piano and orchestra music of Saint-Saëns, but it seems to be coming out now from a lot of people, and lots of younger people, too. So there must be a rediscovery of this music, because I'm certainly not the only one," he reflects on the growing interest in Saint-Saëns, whose music has gone out of fashion in recent decades.

"I think what happens is that, like a lot of composers — and it's the same problem for Fauré — their fame crystallized around a few works, [even though] they had such magnificent and important production. It's maybe also because they were tied to a certain culture. Saint-Saëns was played mostly by French pianists, and now it's sort of spilling over, the same with Fauré, certainly. I think people are just getting more curious and maybe more ready to accept them outside the clichés of what their fame is about."

Vol. 2 of Saint-Saëns' piano concertos will come out in September, and next month Lortie returns to the studio to record Vol. 2 in his survey of Fauré's solo piano music.

'The fun with the Fauré was how to design it'

"At first, I thought Vol. 1 of Fauré wasn't going to sell very well because it's such obscure music, most of it, except for a couple of popular nocturnes and barcarolles. But the fun with the Fauré was how to design it: the way the pieces come in a succession that makes sense from beginning to end. And strangely enough, it sold very well, I think, because I was smart to do what is a very fashionable thing these days — and that works very well with this composer — which is to have a couple of [short pieces] that can be played on commercial classical radio stations: pieces that last four or five minutes and that are immediately recognizable, for example the famous Pavane of Fauré, which you rarely hear in its piano arrangement. And I suspect that these little things are the ones that make such a recording very successful."

He'll apply the same formula to Vol. 2. "I was delighted to find a piano transcription of a couple of movements from the Fauré Requiem, which is of course his most famous work. So, I suspect that a lot of people will buy the recording because of those popular things, and at the same time, they'll listen to something they've never heard before."

Two albums a year is a lot. So, I just have to cope with that, in the sense that I'm very happy because it pushes me to learn a lot of new repertoire, which is fascinating.- Louis Lortie

Lortie says he's on the hook for two albums a year with his label, Chandos Records.

"Very often I hear from my agent, 'Oh, they say you haven't made your second recording yet!' or something [laughs], but I don't calculate those things. I think they just want to have a certain level of production. Two albums a year is a lot. So, I just have to cope with that, in the sense that I'm very happy because it pushes me to learn a lot of new repertoire, which is fascinating."

In recent years, much of this output has been taken up with his Chopin series, which comprises five albums so far. "They were intending that I would do the complete works for piano by Chopin, but I don't think I will ever do that," he points out. "I will do what I find really significant."

Lortie's discography on Chandos now exceeds 50 titles, and when asked whether he'd like to re-record any repertoire, he immediately says yes: the complete Beethoven sonatas, which he originally released in the late 1990s.

"Beethoven is so visceral, there's something so organic about it. There are great pianists of the past who re-did the concertos and re-did the sonatas, and they do sound very different, years apart."

Re-recording doesn't align with his label's plans, however. And yet, Lortie will have a chance to revisit those works in 2020, the year marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. He'll play the 32 piano sonatas by Beethoven over seven concerts at Montreal's Bourgie Hall, and there are plans to film all of them. "This is really important because, as I was playing them, many years after having recorded them, I thought, 'This has changed too much. This would really need a new recording.'"

'Apparently these programs are very addictive'

While Lortie plays down the significance of turning 60, he does acknowledge that he has attained a new level of insight into his own limitations and abilities.

"The big difference between getting older and being younger is that your organism needs longer periods of rest," he reflects. "Last summer, I took seven weeks without having any contact with music. I didn't listen to anything except very light stuff, by accident in the car. And I did not play a single note for seven weeks, so I think that's the kind of thing we need once in a while, to be completely away from it all."

Unlike the rest of us, though, his down-time is not consumed with hours of binge-watching.

"I'm not a technical person," he admits. "I always wanted to get Netflix, but everybody told me it's complicated when you travel, because most people get a subscription in their country, but that's not going to work when you're traveling all the time. Apparently there are some tricks, but I haven't found them. But maybe that's a good thing because apparently these programs are very addictive."

Apparently. So, what does he do?

"Frankly, I'm very happy just carrying old books. I download all my scores now, but I still carry books in my suitcase. Real books. When I have time, I'd rather read. It's very good that I'm not stuck with all those things people are normally watching on their screens. I don't use my screens very much."

Lortie plays Franck's Symphonic Variations with the TSO and Andrew Davis on tour in Montreal on May 21 and in Ottawa on May 22. He plays Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 4 with the TSO in Toronto on May 24 and 25.