Michel Dalberto

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May 6-May 7

The annual Le French May fest is back in town with a stronger arts lineup than ever. Ambrose Li sits down with indubitably virtuosic pianist Michel Dalberto to talk about his upcoming concerts as part of the programme, his tutor who knew Ravel and the technically infuriating Gaspard de la Nuit

"I was an average kid at school. Nothing really interested me,” recalls multiple award-winning pianist Michel Dalberto when we chat to him ahead of his two Hong Kong concerts that are part of this year’s Le French May programme. “As soon as I was in the Conservatoire de Paris, though, I started to be really into music. Suddenly, life became interesting.” And it’s been interesting ever since those educational days for the maestro, who has, over time, become revered as one of the leading French pianists of his generation.

Dalberto first performed in Hong Kong in 1980. He graces the city once again this month as one of the big highlights of Le French May, bringing to music lovers a solo recital of late 19th and early 20th century Gallic piano pieces prior to a concert of Germanic repertoires with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. It’s a brace of shows that should appeal to all classical music lovers, hence the top billing at Le French May.

Now a professor at the Conservatoire, Dalberto comes from good stock. He can trace his line of tutelage back, in fact, to the great Romantic composer and virtuoso pianist Frédéric Chopin, no less. “Let’s say that I feel I was extremely lucky with my piano teacher, Vlado Perlemuter,” he says. “Not many musicians had such prestige at the Conservatoire de Paris, because everyone knew he was the favourite pupil of pianist and conductor Alfred Cortot.” Cortot’s teacher, as it turns out, was a student of Chopin. Though the link seems tenuous, it shows how some of Chopin’s wisdom has been passed down through the ages, all the way to Dalberto.

To Dalberto, Perlemuter shaped his playing and his teaching skills. “I say to my students that to play the notes is 50 percent of the music,” says the professor. “The other 50 percent remains in all the indications on the score, such as tempo, dynamics and phrasing. They are as important as the notes themselves. I think I’ve been deeply and strongly influenced by Vlado Perlemuter in this regard.” Dalberto also points out: “Perlemuter knew Ravel and Fauré. When he was teaching music by these composers, sometimes he would say ‘well, here, when I studied with Ravel, he told me that…’ and suddenly you’d go ‘woah!’ He studied all of Ravel’s piano music with Ravel himself!” Dalberto says this with such enthusiasm that we can feel the sense of awe he had as a student.  

Unsurprisingly, Ravel indeed features in the repertoire of Dalberto’s upcoming piano recital in Hong Kong. The composer’s Gaspard de la Nuit, to be exact. Written in 1908, each of the three movements in the piece is based on a poem by Aloysius Bertrand. Dalberto is of the opinion that it’s unnecessary to know the poems inside out to understand the music because the music itself encapsulates and adds to the meaning of the poetry. “It’s a bit of silly poetry, you know,” he comments. “It’s a little crazy. I think that actually that’s exactly what Ravel wanted to imitate in his music. Something more about the flavour and craziness of the poems, especially Scarbo, the last movement of the piece.” 

Gaspard de la Nuit is known to be technically exigent. On this, Dalberto draws our attention to the first movement, Ondine. “I personally think that Ondine is more difficult [than Scarbo, which many pianists deem to be extremely challenging] because you have to play pianissimo (very soft in volume) all the time. To be really in command of the piano in the nuance of pianissimo is awfully difficult. The beginning of Ondine is really tough.” Having said that, Dalberto feels that Ravel’s precise performance indications are of great help to pianists who wish to realise his music. 

To Dalberto, to attend a concert is not merely for the music. He suggests that in this day and age, it’s incredibly easy to access music, especially on the internet, which actually makes the live concert experience even more special. “What you’re going to hear is something unique,” he tells us. “It will only happen at that time, on that day. If it was the day before or the day after, it would be different. That’s the sheer power of music, of theatre. It’s about the uniqueness of live performance.” 

Like other artists, Dalberto loves returning audiences. However, there’s more to his dazzling performances. He wants to engage people on a much deeper level. “The best and by far the most rewarding compliment I can receive after a concert,” he says, “is from people who come and say they have been moved deeply in their hearts. They are maybe more wealthy. Not wealthy in terms of money, of course, but emotionally wealthy because they’ve been moved profoundly in their hearts and in their minds.” Clearly, it’s best to experience Dalberto’s playing firsthand, as it will strike at both the piano strings and the heart strings. With only the best French composers at his fingertips, his concert this fortnight is a must-hear.

Michel Dalberto: Special French Music Fri May 6, Hong Kong City Hall, 5 Edinburgh Pl, Central, 2921 2840; urbtix.hk. 8pm; $140-$340.
Hong Kong Sinfonietta: Mozart & Strauss Sat May 7, Hong Kong City Hall, 5 Edinburgh Pl, Central, 2921 2840; urbtix.hk. 8pm; $150-$380.


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