On March 25, pianist Lars Vogt wrote on Twitter: “Today: fight against cancer, round 2 (chemo). Keep your fingers crossed for me…” A month and a half later, he’s made it to the cusp of round five. “Another six months like this, until October, 12 rounds in total, as long as my body holds up. So far everything has been pretty stable,” he tells me via Zoom from Nuremberg, Germany, where he lives with his family.
VAN: When did you get your diagnosis?
Lars Vogt: This was in February. I’d been feeling a pressure in my lower chest area for a while, and thought it had to do with my stomach. On the way back from a concert in Nantes, I stopped by my sister and brother-in-law’s place. My brother-in-law is a doctor and he said, “Come on, let’s drive to the practice quickly and do an ultrasound.” Right away, he said that he didn’t like what he saw, and that I needed to do a CT scan.
The scan confirmed that there were tumors on my liver, but we didn’t know where they came from. The gastroscopy showed that there was a small tumor at the end of my throat, and the metastasizing tumors had originated there. The doctor told me that the situation was already pretty dramatic, especially in my liver, and that it was inoperable, because then there wouldn’t be much liver left.
I did some genetic tests, which showed that a certain medication, Herceptin, was a good fit for me. There’s a lot of hope that the chemotherapy will work and that the cancer can be contained. The doctors said they couldn’t give me a prognosis, because this kind of cancer progresses very differently in each person. But they did say, “At the end of the day, the tumor will limit your life.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. So right now everything has been turned upside-down.
What did you think of first when you got the diagnosis?
First a bit of denial, then the will to approach it. Very quickly I compartmentalized things. Of course, you start to imagine what will happen when nothing works and you aren’t around in six months. I realized that there are a whole bunch of practical things to work out: a will, securing a future for my three kids, how can I make sure my wife will be OK? The organizing was really good for me, I have to say. I believe knowing I’ve done what I can for those who remain will be a consolation.
At the same time, I have the feeling: I’m 50 years old now, and everything that I’ve been able to experience in my life—it’s been a blast. Even if it would end right now… I don’t know if there is a creator, but if he exists, all I could do is tip my hat to him and say, “Thank you.” It’s crazy, the people I’ve been able to get to know, the profession I’ve been able to practice—truly unbelievable. I often think of the [German children’s TV character] Captain Bluebear. He had 13 and a half lives; I must have had at least eight and a half. [Laughs.]
So that’s Thought Number One: Getting comfortable with the idea, if it comes to that. But Thought Number Two is: I definitely want to live longer. And be mindful of every day. When I wake up in the morning and the sun rises, I think, “Crazy, how beautiful it is that another day is beginning.” It sounds so cliché to say that you should enjoy every moment, but it really is astounding: going to the supermarket with my wife, the kids running around and goofing off, sitting at the piano and learning a new Brahms piece. [Laughs.] Your perception of these things is much more intense.
Of course I mainly want to be there for my kids, to see them grow up; and for Anna, my wife. Those are goals that I’m trying to reach step by step. Right now, it would be great if I make it to 55. And then it would be great if I crack 60. And if I crack 70, so much the better. But no one can predict that. I have to take it as it comes.
As you’ve been going through chemotherapy, has your relationship with your instrument changed?
Funnily enough, I even play sometimes during the chemo. I’m always in the clinic for two days at a time, and there’s an upright in the cancer ward. Before they hook me up to the infusion I usually go upstairs and play a little for myself. When I’m hooked up to the infusion, I stumble through half the clinic with the stand at my side into the palliative ward, where there’s a grand piano. And I play a little, and whoever wants can listen. As long as it doesn’t bother people. No one’s complained so far. [Laughs.] But of course I’m not practicing, just playing things that give me joy.
Besides that I’m trying to keep up with it, playing for an hour or two a day, which is fun. You need to preserve your strength, but also keep things in order. Usually I feel pretty good until the afternoon, but I’ve often made the mistake of thinking that things are normal, and doing a bunch of stuff, and then I don’t feel great in the evening. I need to remind myself to take a break and lie down. Then I feel better in the evening.
Last year you became the chief conductor of the Orchestre de chambre de Paris. Just recently, between chemo treatments, you led the group in Mozart’s Piano Concertos KV 271 and 491. How was that?
Of course, it was unbelievable that it worked out. My orchestra was touchingly supportive. I got so many letters, emails, social media messages; it’s an unbelievably kind orchestra. Because of the situation, lots of my relationships have gotten closer. Including my relationship with Anna. It’s insane how supportive she is, with such warmth and perspective. It’s been the same with friends: the happiness of having one another. Very early on, I made a WhatsApp group with all my friends, just so that when I have updates—medical, personal—I don’t have to text 50 people separately. That’s also been good for me.
You made your diagnosis public, on Twitter. Was that a difficult decision?
Not at all, I made the decision right at the beginning. Some people prefer to keep things like this for themselves, which I can understand. But for me, from the very beginning, I had the feeling, that’s how it is. This is a part of my life. It gives people the chance to take part in it. It was supportive, the amount of kindness I encountered, even from people from back in the day: from schoolmates, colleagues that I maybe didn’t used to talk with so often. Such kindness and support, that I thought, somehow, at the end of the day, we are all there for one another.
Were you afraid of certain reactions?
No, I knew that every kind of human reaction would be fine with me.
What about from within the music industry?
I did go through the potential consequences once with my agent, because of course I can’t 100 percent guarantee what the situation will look like in six months or a year, especially relating to the piano. Right now, because the situation in my liver was so dramatic, I’m doing FLOT therapy, which consists of three different chemotherapies. One of them, Oxaliplatin, goes in you for three hours. And you notice how it saps away all of your energy… I always have to think of Harry Potter, when Dumbledore has to drink the potion with the Horcrux. Usually I fall asleep, which is good.
The medication has all kinds of possible side effects, including loss of sensitivity in the fingers. I’m supposed to keep a close eye on it. We already talked about leaving out that medication, but when I asked for an update on whether it would be possible to take that luxury, the doctors said, “Well, the situation is pretty dramatic.” Of course I said, “It doesn’t make sense if I’m dead and play the piano wonderfully.” There are a lot of different levels that I can work on, so maybe it’ll have to be something else. But I just spoke with a colleague who also had cancer and took the same stuff, and she said, “Keep practicing, it’s possible to maintain some things that way.” So far it’s been going pretty well.
Every second German will get cancer once in his life. And yet the illness is still a taboo. Do you think that taboo is more prevalent in classical music than elsewhere?
Everyone has to figure it out for himself. For sure, in classical music, we have internalized particularly strongly an ideal image of ourselves—which we think we need to communicate to others— as the omnipotent magician who makes magic at the piano and whose personal life is going great as well. [Laughs.] Social media is a particularly tempting place to share those kinds of images.
You mentioned that you now perceive things more intensely. Does that carry over to your music-making?
Before the therapy started, I went to the therapy room in the cancer ward, sat down at the piano, and played Brahms. Of course, the tears flowed. The feeling that I might need to say goodbye to the instrument I love. You’re more aware of how lucky you are to have the ability to play the instrument. Now, I was able to record the Mozart Concertos, works which have accompanied me my whole life. I hope I’ll be able to finish the complete Schubert Trios with Christian [Tetzlaff] and Tanja [Tetzlaff]… I still have plans. I’d like to be able to share my thoughts on the “Hammerklavier” Sonata in the form of a recording.
But then again, it’s all relative. When I spoke with the doctor, he told me, “We can’t promise you that you’ll still be able to play the piano.” I realized that giving up the piano might be the price I have to pay. Of course, I’d much rather see Emma grow up for several more years than play the piano.
Is there music that feels especially important to you now, which you’ve been able to draw energy from?
I realized once again how much solace there is in Brahms. He didn’t have any children, and yet he wrote in his slow movements one gorgeous lullaby after another. There’s an unbelievable amount of solace in Brahms—in Mozart too, and in Bach, of course. Those are probably the three composers who feel most important to me now.
I’d never played Brahms’s Opus 116 before. It was such a gift to be able to gradually learn it in this time. Unimaginable that it had passed me by before. [Laughs.]
How do you explain the particular solace of Brahms?
When I think of Brahms, it’s first of all the dark colors in his music. And then, when goes into that sweetly fragile major, almost to the point of being saccharine, it’s like he’s looking back at childhood. The narrator says, “You have lots of suffering and sadness ahead of you—but for now, just go to sleep,” and it returns to a lullaby. It’s an adjustment of perspective—not a complete identification with childhood, but from an adult perspective—from a person who’s seen a lot.
Is there music that you aren’t able to listen to right now?
When I’m feeling a little weak some evenings, I realize that I can’t listen to any music at all. I often wanted to listen to a Mahler symphony that I don’t know so well, but then I realized that listening to those pieces requires unbelievable energy. It’s not music that you can listen to in order to relax; it requires so much power from you to get going. It was something I had to learn to accept: When the energy isn’t there, then simplicity and shallowness is fine, even if it just means turning on the TV and letting it murmur along. The only real aversion I have is toward the virtuoso stuff, but that has always been the case for me. [Laughs.]
And what helps distract you completely?
I like to watch soccer with my musician friend Antje Weithaas. During the last round of national team matches, while I was hooked up to the chemo, we met up on FaceTime and watched the entire game. Since then we have regular FaceTime dates to watch the national team or our club, Mönchengladbach. We even watched them lose 6-0 to Bayern Munich. [Laughs.]
In 2018, you told me that you wished that death “would bring clarity to all things.” What has become more clear to you through your illness?
When I started thinking concretely about death and what it could be like when I really have to say goodbye, I developed a totally naïve, almost childlike belief: I hope that on the other side the people who I loved so much and who aren’t here anymore will be there to meet me. From my grandmother to Karl-Heinz Kämmerling, Yakov Kreizberg and Boris Pergamenshikov, all the dear friends who’ve gone over the years. That they’ll somehow be waiting for me with a cold bottle of vodka—though with my grandma it would probably be coffee instead.
To be honest, I don’t really think that will happen. But it’s a nice thought, and I’m allowing myself to keep it. I’m still good friends with my English and Religion teacher from school. He’s 80 now, and a few months ago, he told me that he hopes that when he dies, he’ll be able to die joyously. I thought that was a beautiful idea.
Is there anything about this illness that makes sense to you?
In the last several years, I often had the feeling that time was passing insanely fast. It was so easy to imagine a “whoosh,” and suddenly I’m 80, and the day is done. It’s something that I think a lot of us experience, an accelerando where time keeps flying by more quickly. Before the illness, I was often depressed, even if it was just for a day or two. I’d stay in bed and think: “Oh God, I’m so old.” Funnily, because of the illness that’s completely disappeared. I’m rarely so defeated. More often I’m utterly happy. ¶