Music

From Russia with fame (and probably fortune)

LAWRENCE O’TOOLE August 21 1978
Music

From Russia with fame (and probably fortune)

LAWRENCE O’TOOLE August 21 1978

From Russia with fame (and probably fortune)

Music

André Laplante has what the Russians call dusha. We call it soul. But when he shared the second-place silver medal in Moscow last month at the Sixth International Tchaikovsky Competition (he’s the first Canadian to place, much less win), dusha was no more useful to him during Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto than a performing seal. In the piano competitions of the Tchaikovsky, unsullied, soulless technical prowess is what counts with the judges: a wrong note, a flubbed rhythm or a sudden lapse of memory means quick death. The world’s most prestigious piano competition is also its most perilous: some careers are catapulted (Van Cliburn, Ashkenazy), countless others truncated with dispatch. Laplante remembers the clammy looks on the faces of those who didn’t even make it through their piece of music.

A tall, thin man with fragile, Romantic features and a voice Molly Bloom would have called “bass barreltone,” the 28-yearold pianist from Rimouski, Quebec, proudly displays his Olympian medal. “It’s difficult in a competition to forget it is one. You are constantly aware of making mistakes, more so than in a recital [where several graceless notes are acceptable]. But I wanted to play as I would in recital and keep the feeling. I took a chance that it would work.” Had the judges not been amused, the response of the Russian audiences—for whom dusha ranks higher than medals—would have compensated. Clearly the favorite, he arrived back in the West deluged with tokens of appreciation

and entreaties to return to Russia.

For the past few years, living in New York, Laplante has survived mostly on scholarships, performing an average of 15 concerts a year. An automatic passport to success, the medal means at least 60 performances annually, possibly a lot more, though he vows not to burn himself out. A

recording contract from EMI-Angel has been handed him. The North American pinnacle of a pianist’s success, Carnegie Hall, is waiting to be scaled Oct. 21. If he hadn’t won the medal he figures it would have taken another five or six years for his career to take off. “We won’t have to eat all that spaghetti anymore,” he sighs with relief.

Developing a passion for piano was a cumulative process. He started at six, got serious at 14 and had his master’s degree by the time he was 19. “Temperamentally 1 guess right now I’m into my Russian period,” he says with a sly grin. “I don’t mean to imply that 1 want to specialize, but it’s true that I play more romantic repertoire. I’m interested in modern music but I'm not really attracted to the cerebral.”

It is, perhaps, more than coincidence that Quebec has produced the three top upand-coming pianists in the country—Laplante, Louis Lortie and Janina Fialkowska. Ironically, the school of music two of them attended—the Vincent d’lndy in Montreal—is being closed down because of a bureaucratic technicality. A further irony is that Laplante has had to leave his country to reap recognition inside it.

He hasn’t been particularly lucky performing in Canada, either. During his first performance following the Moscow win, in the open-air Forum of Toronto’s Ontario Place, he was at the disadvantage of having to compete with a baseball game and having Andre Kostelanetz, who has absolutely no dusha at all, conduct him. Earlier this year, at a pops concert with the Toronto Symphony, the competition came from the Star Wars theme. Says Laplante, “It was the peets."

Now he’s convinced he’s paid his dues: “I would think I’m a serious enough musician to play Massey Hall, wouldn’t you?” LAWRENCE O’TOOLE