May 24th 2017

François Dumont interviewed: The music never stops

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”


Taking a break in gaps between a Mozart piano concerto in Izmir, Turkey, (No. 9, “Jeunehomme”), a recording session of three Mozart concertos in Rennes, France (Nos. 1, 24 and 27), and a performance tour in China, François Dumont graciously responded last week to a list of questions on how he squeezes all these demands into his burgeoning musical life.

François Dumont

Based in his home town of Lyon, France, the affable Dumont, 31, is emerging as a major young pianist, both as a solo star and with orchestras and chamber ensembles. He feeds the public demand both by live performances and his 21 CDs now available. As he said in my email interview with him, he is rarely at home for a full week.  Excerpts from our conversation:

Question: Looking at your recording history and your extensive concertizing, I wonder how you find time to prepare. You schedule about 100 performances a year.  In a typical week, you must be at the keyboard pretty much non-stop?

Answer: It may seem strange but I can't really say I have a routine. All my days are different and I am rarely at home for a whole week! But yes, I can spend eight hours or more in a single day at the piano, especially if I am working on new repertoire. 

Q: What are your practicing habits?

A: I enjoy practicing in the morning and late at night. I find the quality of silence at night very inspiring, especially for slow or meditative work. The silence has an influence over the quality of sound, which after all is a merely the vibration of air. For this purpose I have two pianos, one of which is in the basement so I can practice without disturbing anybody, which is very important for me.

Q: I have heard you perform on unfamiliar pianos in drafty venues. How do you adapt to effectively?

A: On concert tours, whether for a recital or with an orchestra, I always like to spend some time alone in the hall with the piano. One has to feel the instrument, understand its qualities and weaknesses, and make the sound your own.

Q:. Your repertoire seems remarkably extensive for such a young pianist. What composer has been most challenging for you?

A: Great virtuoso works like the Liszt operatic transcriptions -- I am thinking of the Tannhaüser overture, the Guillaume Tell overture or Reminiscences of Norma -- are of course very challenging physically. The limits of the piano are always pushed further. Nevertheless, they are well written for the instrument. I have played a program that Liszt performed himself several times, where he had chosen almost exclusively operatic transcriptions.

Dumont’s versatility is evident in this performance of Bach, Mozart, Tanguy and Chopin:

Q: You seem to favor Mozart and Beethoven. Do you have a special affection or admiration for one composer or one period?

A: Indeed I have been spending a lot of time with Mozart. His music is vital for me, just like Beethoven and Chopin. But it is impossible for me to choose a favorite among the variety of composers available to us. I find that life would be far less beautiful without Bach, Schubert, Ravel... A pianist has access to more than three centuries of music. This is a very special privilege!

Dumont’s interpretation of the Chopin Ballade No.1 Op.23 is performed here with special sensitivity and virtuosity:

Q: And the most challenging composer?

A: Musically, I find Mozart is probably the most difficult composer. He may seem so simple but he is in fact very complex.

Q: On our powerful modern instruments, so ubiquitous in concert halls,  don't all top pianists risk sounding the same regardless of the composer's era?

A: No. I try to vary my approach of the instrument depending on the period and the style. Most of the music we perform is not actually written for the modern piano, so you constantly have to adapt with balance, type of sonorities, pedaling....

Q: Where does contemporary composition fit into your interests? Do you have contact with any living composers?

A: I am very interested in contemporary music. Working with a living composer is a great experience for an interpreter -- one can make a direct link between the written score and the composer's wishes. I had the immense privilege of playing for Henri Dutilleux his "Jeu des contraires" a few years before he passed away. This was an incredible moment. I have often performed works of Eric Tanguy, a good friend, and I have enjoyed performing and working with living composers such as Pascal Dusapin, Tristan Murail, Nicolas Bacri, Alain Gaussin, among others.

François Dumont

Q: Pianists often complain of the long rehearsal investment required for some contemporary works.

A: Yes, some contemporary works can be very difficult, asking the player to make the impossible possible. This summer I will be performing a cycle by Tristan Murail, "Des travaux et des jours". It forces my brain to work differently and find solutions in a different, non-traditional way. All these composers have different personalities and writing, which constantly renews your approach of music.

Q: As you continue to grow as a musician, what repertoire helps you develop your musicianship?

A: I firmly believe that the music you play forms you as a musician. That is, you develop certain qualities by working and playing certain composers. For example, Chopin teaches you the art of cantabile. Bach develops your polyphonic abilities, which is for me a fundamental task in the art of piano playing. 

Q:  Your discography indicated that you like to devote yourself to complete cycles.

A: Yes, I have recorded several cycles – the complete Ravel piano works, complete Mozart sonatas, complete Chopin Nocturnes, complete Beethoven trios -- that require going deep into a composer's world.

Q: How about chamber music and full-orchestra concertos?

A:  I have recently begun the Mozart piano concertos cycle, conducting from the keyboard. This is extremely inspiring and is teaching me a lot as a musician. The sonorities of the orchestra, the structure of a movement, finding the right tempo, the right balance, conveying the atmosphere that you imagine, expressing the right emotion -- all these things are extremely fulfilling and exciting as a musician. And I always get a lot of ideas from playing with ensembles.

Q: How much teaching or counseling are you still receiving? I believe you and William Naboré of the Lake Como Academy still communicate, following your studies there.

A: I am indeed much in contact with William Naboré at the International Piano Academy on Lake Como. We are both busy and we travel a lot but when we find the time, I love to go to Rome to see him and play new repertoire, and discuss it. He has an incredible ear and culture, and he knows me so well.

Q: What are the pleasures and pains of rehearsing and performing with your wife, the Irish soprano Helen Kearns? 

A: I love performing with Helen. From a "sound" point of view, the beauty of the voice, its colors, vibrations and shapes are extremely inspiring for me as a pianist. I love the lieder and melody repertoire, which is full of gems. We have to be in perfect harmony to perform it together. While rehearsing, some heated moments may occasionally occur, as my approach is perhaps too analytical for a singer. But the musical pleasures are far superior to the pains! It is also nice to travel together, as I spend much of my life travelling alone.

Q: What aspect of Ravel's life and music did you address in your new musical play "Fantaisie théâtrale"? Which Ravel pieces or fragments are included?

A: This was an incredibly enriching experience. We premiered it last September in the Besançon Festival -- a very important place for me as it is where Dinu Lipatti had his last recital. I discovered the world of theater from inside, how it works with text and the intonation, how actors move on stage, how to put together the lighting, the sound. Claude Duparfait is an excellent French actor and Ravel is his life long passion. He can sing any part of l'Enfant et les Sortilèges or Daphnis!

Q: What did you try to convey about Ravel’s life?

A: The text is not about Ravel's life, but about Claude's life story and his relationship with Ravel's music. He comes from a difficult background where there was not much space for culture. The discovery of Ravel educated him, inspired him to become an actor, completely changed his life.

Q: There was a great deal of music in this production.

A: Yes, and it was fun choosing the works. There is a delicate balance between text and music, and the musical moments always have to be coherent with the dramatic context. La Valse, some of the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Le Gibet, Alborada del Gracioso, Oiseaux Tristes, Menuet in C sharp, Pavane pour une infante défunte are the works we chose, as well as the opening Cadenza of the Left Hand Concerto.

Q: Your complete Beethoven trios left a deep impression on me and on others who have listened to it at length.  Now you are planning the Schubert trios. Where does the recording schedule stand, and when will the CD be launched?

A: Actually the Schubert trios have already been recorded. We are now in the process of editing. I hope they will come out in the fall. We included the two great trios (op. 99 and op.100) as well as the wonderful Notturno and the small B flat trio in one movement (Sonatensatz) which Schubert wrote at age 16. Playing the Schubert trios is one of the greatest satisfactions a musician can have, but they are also extreme demanding for the three players. Again -- pleasure and pain together.

Q: Are you seeking to build a reputation beyond Europe? Do you have plans or aspirations to return to the United States in solo or ensemble or with a major orchestra?

A: Yes, I am very interested in performing and building a reputation outside Europe. I was twice in Colombia last January, and play often in Asia. I have been in China this month for a recital tour, and I will go back to South Korea in November for the Beethoven piano concerto No. 5 and some solo recitals.

Q: What about U.S. opportunities? Isn’t that where all pianists want to be seen and heard?

A: I will be in the United States in June, for the Round Top Music Festival, where I will perform both Ravel concertos. I will also be giving some master classes. In October I will play Ravel G Major and Gershwin Rhapsody in blue with the Redlands Symphony in Redlands, California, conducted by Ransom Wilson. I would love to play more often in the United States as I believe it is a really great country for music, with enthusiastic and cultivated audiences, and the most wonderful orchestras.


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