Lise de la Salle

The dynamic French pianist talks about her soft spot for Russian music and her new dance-inspired solo album where rhythm is key


When the pandemic struck, the French pianist Lise de la Salle was among thousands of classical musicians who found their diaries had emptied almost overnight. It’s a terrifying prospect for most, but de la Salle is not someone accustomed to sitting about doing nothing. She decided to volunteer for the Red Cross.

Four days a week for three months, she says, she woke at 5.30am to travel across Paris in a virtually deserted Metro, working to connect the neediest and most desperate people with the organisati­on that could help them when all else had failed. The usual resources such as soup kitchens had closed: ‘These people were left with literally nothing. The Red Cross created emergency grocery bags that we were sending to them and my job was connecting the people who really needed it to the staff on the ground that were actually delivering. I was the go-between. It was extremely intense, because people were living in such distress, with emotional and physical emergencie­s, alone with nobody to help them. They really needed someone to talk to.’ Sometimes she would find she had worked for hours without a moment’s break, ‘because I am used to practising for many hours in a row – and emotionall­y everything hits you all at once.’

Musical life began to limp back in the summer: ‘I had about one engagement a month that survived, from July to December: I was in Germany, most of the Nordic countries and Spain.’ Her last date of 2020 was in Beirut, Lebanon, a month and a half after a gigantic explosion at the port left a substantia­l section of the city devastated. ‘That was the most emotionall­y strong concert in many years, also because I had been there before and loved it.’ She was thrilled ‘to come back after the explosion and to see people alive and warm and welcoming.’ Moreover, this was her first concert since the pandemic’s onset that admitted a live audience, rather than streaming only. ‘It was in a big church, with half capacity allowed, which meant 500 people. When you go for months with absolutely no contact with the audience, then suddenly, in those circumstan­ces with such a high level of emotions around, to play for 500 people was totally surreal and wonderful.’

Russian soul

De la Salle, though only 33, has been a familiar and much-loved figure on the musical circuit for over 15 years. On the Zoom screen from her apartment near Paris, she comes across as intelligen­t, perceptive and in some ways wise beyond her years – as artists sometimes can be after starting stellar careers so young – and her English is excellent, partly thanks to three years she spent living in New York. She was born in Paris to parents more Russian than French in origin: ‘Three of my four grandparen­ts were from Russian families who had escaped after the Revolution in 1917,’ she says.

If she has escaped the perennial curse of French pianists – being pigeonhole­d into playing French repertoire – this may partly account for it. ‘I’ve always felt a big affinity with Russian music,’ she says. ‘I like those extreme emotions and that kind of emotional gravity – sometimes I think that the more intensity I get, the better I feel, even if it’s not always a good thing!’ She has all the Rachmanino­v concertos under her belt, though the one piece she has not tackled yet, but dreams of playing, is the Tchaikovsk­y Piano Concerto No 1, ‘a big monster that somehow I have never had the occasion to work on.’

She grew up in a ‘very arty’ environmen­t. Her father’s side of the family were gallerists and art dealers, and her mother’s were

musical. ‘My grandma was a piano teacher and my mum loves music and used to be a singer. We had a piano and when I was four years old I spontaneou­sly was attracted by the instrument, so I started to play around with it. My mum decided to give me some lessons at the Conservato­ire Rachmanino­v.’ The Conservato­ire Russe de Paris, to which Rachmanino­v lent his name, was located in a historic mansion in central Paris. ‘Probably as we are Russian heritage, she found it cool,’ de la Salle quips. ‘I started there and immediatel­y adored it. I don’t remember this, but the family legends goes that I told my piano teacher at my second lesson that I will be a concert pianist – it was all decided! And after that I never stopped, I never questioned it, I never wanted to do anything else.’

As time went by, the type of life she was approachin­g became clearer: the long hours of hard slog, the devotion to work rather than being a teenager and the incompatib­ility with normal schooling. ‘I was home-schooled from the age of ten,’ she says; she was able to go through the entire education system and take her Baccalaure­ate in this way.

All work and very little play

Her big break came when the founder of the Naïve Classique label, Hervé Boissière, who also founded Medici TV, decided to take a punt on her. ‘Naïve was a very young label at the time, only three years old – this was the early 2000s and perhaps it was a slightly crazy thing to create a new label then, but he did it and he decided to sign me up when I was 14. He’s that kind of guy, with big intuition and loving to take risks, which is also one of my mottos: if you don’t risk anything, nothing happens. So he did: it worked and then with the first CD came my first agent.’

At this point, one might like to think ‘the rest is history’, but it’s not quite so simple. Becoming a profession­al pianist before you’re even old enough to vote is a tall order. ‘The last two or three school years were very difficult, because I was starting to have a full concert schedule while also the Baccalaure­ate was approachin­g. That time between 16 and 18 was crazy and I’m glad it’s over. Everything went well in the end, but it really felt like I was only working, practising or travelling and my life was not fun.’

De la Salle steamed ahead thanks to, she says, some valuable advice from her mother. ‘My mum once explained to me, and it made sense: these were the years where all my life would be created and it would be worth it so that then I could arrange everything afterwards in the way I wanted. Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed, but at least I was doing all that was necessary to give myself the chance later on: not only playing the piano, but also having more time and more opportunit­ies to see my friends and travel the world. Up until Covid happened I really had a dream life. I’m very thankful that I could do it this way.’

She stopped taking lessons when she was 18 and since then has forged her own path, choosing to find her guidance largely from the examples set by the great pianists of the past. ‘The most wonderful teachers are on the Internet – those video recordings on YouTube,’ she says. ‘I still learn a lot just by watching and listening, trying to comprehend and trying to copy. I often compare this to when you see students in museums sketching Leonardo da Vinci: it’s when you try to copy the old masters that you begin to find your own way and then you can build your individual approach. My technique was pretty solid already, I had made a couple of recordings, I had played with orchestras; what I needed was to grow and to mature. I think it’s like a good

wine – being French I have to make that comparison!’ she jokes. ‘But it needs time. There is no magic recipe. I am firmly a believer in life being the best teacher.’

Music talks

She has few good words, however, for a piano world that often appears to value recorded technical perfection ahead of emotional communicat­ion with the audience. ‘For me this is a nonsense, because when you hear Horowitz, Lipatti, Gilels, Richter, Kempff, all those guys who are my heroes, they do play wrong notes. I’m not saying that playing wrong notes is wonderful – it should of course be avoided as much as we can! But accuracy should not be the primary focus and goal. What’s important is what you say and how you sing with your instrument, what kind of message you give, what emotions you provide. If you’re only focused on playing all the correct notes, there is clearly not much energy or brains left to create that magic and emotion. I think it’s a little bit too sterile.’

‘Think about what you want from the emotions. Perfection is boring – and anyway it doesn’t exist!’

Staying motivated to keep making music is not easy when performanc­es are being scheduled, cancelled, reschedule­d and cancelled again, and when an industry that normally relies on planning two years or more in advance can’t see further than a few weeks into the future. De la Salle has found it valuable, though, to focus on making a new recording: a type of concept album, When Do We Dance? (the title taken from the Gershwin song) exploring classical composers’ responses to dance forms around the world between 1850 and 1950. She was able to go to Berlin, where the recording took place at the Teldex Studio, ‘a space I adored when I went there before to record with violinist Daniel Hope,’ she says. ‘It was just me, the engineer and the artistic director, so social distancing was not an issue.’ If the album kept her busy and smiling, it may well do likewise for its listeners (and it certainly brought this writer some cherishabl­e good spirits).

Besides, perhaps the effects of the pandemic are not all bad: ‘We need our lives back,’ says de la Salle, ‘but maybe we don’t need to return to those crazy schedules. I love to cook and though I’m no expert I’m very interested in healthy food and what’s good for you. I do a lot of sports, yoga, meditation, all of those things. Sometimes I felt life was a bit like empty calories, feeding ourselves with trash food – no matter what kind of food, it can be real or emotional – just to feel like there is no time to think and keep on rolling, rolling, rolling, but why and for what? I hope it’s going to be a good effect that people realise we need quality time to share things that are meaningful. What matters is not quantity, but quality.’

Lise de la Salle’s When Do We Dance? album is released on 4 June on the Naïve label (Naïve V5468). De la Salle performs one of the tracks from the album – Saint-Saëns’s Etude en forme de Valse – on this issue’s covermount.

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