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MUSIC / CHRIS PASLES : Love in Good Measure : It’s the Chief Emotion in the Piano Concerto That Alain Lefevre Will Perform Today and Thursday

Alain Lefevre went right to the source to prepare for playing and recording John Corigliano’s Piano Concerto this week with the Pacific Symphony.

The 31-year-old French Canadian pianist sought out the composer and spent about six days over about the same number of months working with Corigliano in New York. As it turns out, the experience was a mixed blessing.

“It’s very difficult to play music when the composer is still alive,” Lefevre said in a recent break from rehearsing in Costa Mesa. “He knows exactly what he wants to hear, and the danger is that you will lose a kind of inspiration because you really want to do what he wants. That for me was kind of difficult. But finally, it came out very well.”

In fact, Corigliano praised the pianist’s interpretation.

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“Alain Lefevre made me rediscover my concerto,” he reportedly told a Radio-Quebec production team that is making a one-hour documentary on the pianist. (That documentary, which will incorporate the efforts of Lefevre, conductor Carl St.Clair and the Pacific this week, will be broadcast later in Canada. Thursday’s concert, however, will be carried live locally on KUSC-FM 91.5.)

Composed in 1967, the concerto has four, rather than the traditional three, movements, following the pattern of Brahms’ Second Concerto--an allegro, a scherzo, a slow movement and a finale.

“The fourth (movement) is an atomic bomb,” Lefevre said. “John had told me that it had to be barbarian.”

The pianist described the work as “a huge piece, 102 pages. A long concerto, like the Rachmaninoff No. 3, is (only) 81 or 82 pages,” he said. “It took me 14 months to put it together. The first Tchaikovsky concerto I put together in seven weeks, just to give you a comparison.”

The music is “modern” and at the same time “classic in form,” Lefevre said. “That means that if you make a false note, people will hear it.”

The chief emotion in the work, he said, is “passion. It’s love. John is a loving man, and when I talk about love, I say love, with a lot of violence, a lot of fight and a lot of Romanticism.”

Love and passion are uppermost in Lefevre’s mind right now, as he deals with the death three weeks ago of his father, a professional clarinetist, from cancer at the age of 62.

“It’s a tough time for me. I was very near my father,” he said. “My father and mother were very health-oriented: No meat, no cigarettes, no coffee. Go to bed very early, no alcohol. All their life they fought not to have cancer, and (yet) cancer fell on my father.”

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Lefevre got the news of his father’s death about 24 hours before a scheduled rehearsal with the Montreal Symphony for a program that ironically included Liszt’s “Totentanz” for piano and orchestra, which is, Lefevre said, “the dance macabre"--or dance of death. “I called my mom and she said, ‘Alain, your father wants you to play.’ ”

That attitude was typical of the man.

All four of his sons (there are no daughters, and Alain is the third son) are musicians.

“That was the dream of my father,” he said. “For him, the first thing was not--I’ll say something terrible--was not even his wife, but was music.”

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Lefevre was born in Poitiers, France, and moved with his family to Quebec when he was 3 so his father could begin teaching clarinet at the local conservatory. Alain Lefevre started studying piano a year later but didn’t take to it at first.

“I’m sure that you know that a young kid doesn’t really want to work,” he said. “I was a kid, and it was a very hard discipline.”

Still, he won a contest when he was 5, and by the time he was 11 had “really decided to dedicate myself to work.”

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At 17, he went to the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris to study with Pierre Sancan.

“Sancan was the first French teacher to refuse the French technique,” he said. “He was more interested in the German tradition. He also put a lot of the Russian technique and Russian power-piano in his technique.”

What did he most get out of that study?

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“Sancan was the kind of man who forced you to think. If you came to a lesson, his first question was, ‘Can I see your music?’ And then, if you hadn’t put in the fingering, he would say, ‘I don’t want to hear you . . . ‘ “

Lefevre still writes in the fingering for all the notes, as his copy of the Corigliano score clearly indicates.

“When there are a lot of difficulties,” he said, “I put two possibilities of fingering.”

For Sancan, fingering was really a matter of creating “sonority,” Lefevre said. “He said, ‘The piano has to be an orchestra. You have a great orchestra in your hand, and you have to think about the voicing of the instruments.’ ”

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Lefevre finished his studies at 21, taking first honors in piano, chamber music, analysis and other subjects. He began playing recitals with famed violinist Christian Ferras and concertizing in Belgium, Germany, England, Italy and Portugal.

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But all along he stayed in touch with Sancan.

“He always called me to see if I was not doing what I call major mistakes in piano,” he said.

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Lefevre still calls Montreal home (“I’m really a kid of Canada now”), although he said, “I don’t spend a lot of time there (because) I’m traveling a lot now.”

The Corigliano Concerto will be his first recording, and Lefevre sees it as an opportunity.

“This is fantastic music. It’s angel music,” he said. “If you come with Chopin No. 1, people have recorded it so well that what can I add? You have to make a recording (only) when you feel you have something to say.”

* Alain Lefevre will be soloist in John Corigliano’s Piano Concerto with the Pacific Symphony led by Carl St.Clair today and Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Also on the program are Frank Ticheli’s “Postcard” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. $14 to $39. (714) 740-2000.

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