Jeffrey Ladeur on his concert tour of the Debussy cycle

For the past decade, pianist Jeffrey LaDeur has led a successful career as a soloist, chamber musician, educator and most recently, as a Founder and Artistic Director of the San Francisco International Piano Festival and New Piano Collective.  His concerts have taken him throughout the United States and Europe where he performed at prestigious halls including Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Eastman Theater, Hochschule für Musik in Frankfurt, and Banff Centre for the Arts.He is a founding member of the acclaimed Delphi Trio where he maintains an active concert schedule.

As a champion of French music, Jeffrey has presented a Debussy cycle which shows Debussy’s musical influences from his predecessors.  This unique approach to programming can be heard on his debut CD, The Unbroken Line. He returns to Carnegie Hall in March to celebrate Debussy’s centennial where he will culminate the Debussy cycle that he started in 2015.  

"Playing the works of Couperin and Rameau at the piano has been a great influence on my performance of Debussy, and I do not believe that these pieces should be restricted to the harpsichord."

You have been busy concertizing this year.  How are the concerts going so far? 

This has been a busy and rewarding season so far, thank you. It is interesting how each concert season has a rhythm of its own; sometimes different programs back to back, sometimes the same program repeated many times on a tour, and others more widely spaced with only one or two performances, permitting more time to practice and learn new repertoire.

Do you enjoy travelling? 

Yes, I enjoy traveling very much, but that was not always the case. It took me a while to learn how to let the insanity of airports register as distant white noise and I make sure to have plenty of interesting reading and creative work with me so that I am not unnecessarily influenced by the surrounding chaos.

Where are you currently based?

The San Francisco Bay Area has been my home since 2009, and it is from there that I launched my career. I founded the San Francisco International Piano Festival last summer and feel lucky to be able to contribute to the vibrant arts scene in the Bay Area.  I also love New York and am always excited to perform there. Myra Hess said a wonderful thing about performing in NYC, something to the effect of, “When I play in London, everyone hopes that I will do my best. When I play in New York, everyone expects me to do my best!”   

You’re performing a concert commemorating Debussy’s centennial at Carnegie Hall on March 25th.  What made you come up with this idea of doing a centennial concert?

In the summer of 2015, I began planning a multi-season project encompassing all of Debussy’s major works for piano and selected works of his predecessors that influenced and inspired him. The idea was to explore the many strands of connection and trace Debussy’s evolution as a composer with the series culminating in the 2018 centennial year. To be able to celebrate the anniversary on the day itself while making my solo debut at Carnegie Hall is a great honor indeed.

You’re performing the complete etudes by Debussy.  Can you tell us about his etudes? 

I did not take a chronological approach to programming Debussy’s music over the past three years, but I knew that the cycle would conclude with Debussy’s Etudes, my favorite of his solo piano works. Written in 1915, they are his last substantial work for piano, belonging to the same period of his Sonata for Cello, Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and En Blanc et Noir. These works were composed during the first world war, the events of which weighed heavily on Debussy’s heart and mind. It is largely due to a tragically brief remission of his cancer that posterity has these pieces, composed in the seaside town of Pourville.

Can you tell us about some of Debussy’s influences?

Many writers have identified Debussy’s ‘late style’ that emerged from Jeux (1913) onwards. However, one aspect of this evolution is still underestimated in my opinion: His profound debt to what he calls “the old French tradition”.
     Rameau is perhaps more recognizable as formative influence in Debussy’s work, not only because of Images I and its Hommage à Rameau, but the number of times that Debussy refers to him in writing. Couperin, on the other hand, is mentioned only in passing and has therefore been overlooked as a major influence on the late pieces of Debussy. I have noticed that Debussy often alludes to his deep influences in their own style of writing, making a subtle, sideways nod to Couperin an appropriately quizzical reference.

Can you tell us about the program for your upcoming recital? 

My recital program features the two composers that inspired Debussy’s Etudes: Couperin and Chopin. While the Etudes were ultimately dedicated to Chopin, the final decision between the two dedicatees was left up to Durand. The arbitrary nature of this seems impossible to me, because Debussy never left anything to chance, including details of font, spacing, color and general presentation of his works in print. My belief is that the Etudes are a double hommage, much like Couperin’s own Apotheosis of Lully in which he ‘introduces’ Lully and Corelli to one another in Parnassus, joining French and Italian styles and creating ‘perfection in music’.

Were there any individuals who made an impact on your artistry?

I became aware of Debussy’s spiritual and psychological integration of older French music through my late teacher and greatest musical influence, Annie Marchand Sherter. An extraordinarily perceptive and intuitive musician, she studied with Vlado Perlemuter and Alfred Cortot in Paris while having contact with artists like Sviatoslav Richter during the Tchaikovsky Competition, Martha Argerich with whom she won a prize in the 1957 Geneva Competition, Dinu Lipatti, and the list goes on.
     Annie never had the international career as a performer that she deserved, but I am incredibly lucky that she continued to teach from her home in Geneva, Illinois, only a few miles from where I grew up. While I came to her at sixteen and only studied on a weekly basis for two years, I always came back to play for her after going away to Eastman. Our relationship evolved from student and teacher to something more like musical son and mother; I was lucky enough to know her for thirteen years. During my time learning from Annie, we worked on a huge amount of French music, particularly as Perlemuter had personal contact with Ravel, Faure, Dukas, and others, and Annie wanted to pass down what she had learned from him.


Did you also study Debussy with Annie?

Naturally, Debussy was a substantial part of my studies, although not as much as some of the other composers mentioned above. It is curious to me, now listening to her recorded performances of Debussy’s music, just how differently we approached him while still having much in common. She had spoken to me many times about a paper she had written on the origins of Debussy’s penultimate prelude “…Les tierces alternées…” in Rameau’s Gavotte et Doubles in a minor. This idea intrigued me, but having never played either piece nor read her article, it was only after her death in 2015 that I realized what she had discovered.

You have recorded a CD titled “The Unbroken Line” which features works by Debussy and Rameau. What is the meaning behind title “The Unbroken Line”? 

The concept of an unbroken line refers to Debussy’s use of Rameau’s theme, embedded in alternating thirds, which is itself a reference to the fourth double of Rameau’s Gavotte.  Annie realized the connection while practicing both pieces for an upcoming recital, sensing that they were cut from the same cloth. The theme of Rameau’s Gavotte has its roots in older French chanson, meaning that Debussy’s prelude, in all its quirkiness and brevity, actually reaches back through centuries of French tradition.  With that in mind, I decided to record an album exploring the connection between Debussy and Rameau including the material from Annie’s paper and my own research into Images I and Rameau’s very real appearance in that cycle. 

Do you think the style of playing Debussy and music of other French composers have evolved over the years? 

I think there has always been a wide range of interpretation of Debussy’s music. There is certainly more scholarship and seriousness informing our modern performers, and I am very much in favor of that, because the architecture of his music is so important.
     At the same time, I adore the recordings of George Copland for their sensual nonchalance and almost hedonistic perfume. I was also fascinated to learn that Wilhelm Backhaus, during his early years, felt that there were only two then-modern composers that would stand the test of time: Rachmaninoff and Debussy. Claudio Arrau came to Debussy late in life after having immersed himself in the German classics, Liszt, and Chopin for the majority of his career.
     The lines between national schools of playing have largely disappeared, though one occasionally hears a pianist who attempts to narrowly define “French” style in some way.

How would you define your approach towards playing Debussy?

For myself, I try to find a sound for Debussy that is deep without heaviness, clear but not dry. Playing the works of Couperin and Rameau at the piano has been a great influence on my performance of Debussy, and I do not believe that these pieces should be restricted to the harpsichord. If there was any doubt left about this subject, Grigory Sokolov proved once and for all that early music can be magical on the piano.

I understand that you have performed widely with the Delphi Trio as a chamber musician where you’re a founding member. How do you find the time to pursue both endeavors? 

My work with the Delphi Trio is an integral part of my musical life, and finding the right balance between solo and chamber music is a dynamic process. Artistically, I feel that they are totally symbiotic, as the trio repertoire is not only overwhelmingly beautiful, but also very demanding of the pianist. Therefore, I don’t feel that I play much differently in the ensemble than I do in recital.

What role does a pianist play in an ensemble?

I was taught that as a pianist, one has to change one’s entire approach when collaborating with a singer or instrumentalist, but now I feel it is just the opposite. The pianist stands to enrich his or her playing by importing the values of chamber music to solo playing. In other words, if you wouldn’t do it in the ensemble, you should rethink doing it at all! That is of course an exaggeration, but I do believe that aggressive and percussive voicing is largely unnecessary and unappealing, especially in small venues.
     Having said that, I feel the biggest shift in presence and sound when I am playing with an orchestra. In the best circumstances, you can work with the conductor and the ensemble to create a chamber music dynamic which promotes communication and balance. In less than ideal situations, you have to learn to make a lot of sound with minimal effort and still deliver the musical message in which you believe.

Do you enjoy one endeavor more than the other?

I would not be able to choose either chamber or solo as a preference, and I learned a long time ago that both are complementary sides of the coin for me. Chamber music has been one of the best teachers for me as a pianist, and I am excited to be playing ever more solo recitals having been the beneficiary of my inspiring colleagues.

Do you have any current or future project you would like to share?

I am looking forward to recording a Debussy centennial album this summer with my great friend and engineer/producer Matt Carr. The recording will feature the musical dialogue of my recital program for the centennial, expanding the connections further than would be possible in a single evening’s program. I am also toying with the idea of a bonus disc with interview and musical examples for those interested to explore more in depth the connections between these composers.

Jeffrey LaDeur performs on Sunday, March 25, 2018 at Carnegie Hall. For tickets, click here.  Learn more about Jeffrey LaDeur through his website,