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Lisiecki: More Than a Prodigy

Janos Gereben on November 12, 2013
Jan Lisiecki Photo by Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Jan Lisiecki
Photo by Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Prominent music eduucator Jim Meredith has heard, auditioned, taught, and mentored several hundreds of young artists, so I took note when he wrote of Jan Milosz Lisiecki a couple of years ago:

Do you know about this 16-year-old Canadian pianist? He is really something special. I’m sitting here in tears hearing his Verbier Festival recital.

Meredith in tears? A 16-year-old at Verbier? This, as Richard Dreyfuss says of mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind: "means something, this is important."

Even in the era of Yuja Wang (debut at 9), Alicia Witt (7), Conrad Tao (4), and other prominent artists starting in their pre-teens, Lisiecki is someone special, making his debut at 9, and maintaining a spectacular career ever since, giving hundreds of recitals, and performing with orchestras in Canada and internationally, including the New York Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, to name a few.

Lisiecki in action
Lisiecki in action

The topic is especially timely as Lisiecki is scheduled to make his San Francisco debut on Dec. 3 in the S.F. Conservatory of Music Concert Hall.

His attractive program includes Messiaen's Preludes Nos. 1-4 (La colombe, Chant d’exstase dans un paysage triste, Le nombre léger, Instants defunts); Bach's Partita No.1 in B-flat Major, BWV 82; Paderewski's Minuet Op. 14, No. 1, and Nocturne in B-flat Major, Op. 16 No. 4; Martinu's Trois Danses Tchèques, H. 154; and — in the concert's second half — Chopin's Études, Op. 10.

Now 18, Lisiecki (pronounced Li-SHET-skee) has a packed performance calendar in the 2013-14 season, and a coveted contract with Deutsche Grammophon, with which he signed at age 15. He was also just awarded Gramophone’s 2013 Young Artist of the Year.

An interview in the Montreal Gazette earlier this year painted this picture:

It's obvious immediately upon meeting piano phenom Jan Lisiecki — with his ramrod posture, pinpoint diction, and sage maturity — that he is not a typical teenager.

His lifestyle, certainly, is vastly different. For instance, when the 18-year-old received word of his Juno Award nomination for classical album of the year, he was navigating the powdery peaks of Aspen, Colo., with his dad. A couple days prior, he had been performing at an exclusive black-tie gala in Palm Springs, Fla. Less than a week earlier, it was a sold-out engagement at Tokyo's 2,000-seat Suntory Hall with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

When the Junos are contested Sunday in Regina, Lisiecki will regrettably not be in attendance — he's due for a week-long whisk through Germany. He plays more than 100 concerts annually.

Lisiecki's Chopin Etudes CD on Deutsche Grammophon marked the label's first recording of the work since Maurizio Pollini's in 1972.

Asked about following Pollini's performance, Lisiecki — who's in his second year of a bachelor of music degree at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto — offers a paraphrased quote from Glenn Gould: "If you have nothing new to say, then don't say it. Don't record it."

"I truly believe in that quote," he continues. "While my etudes aren't radical or earth-shattering, I think they bring lots of music — something which sometimes lacks from the etudes because people really get involved in the technical qualities."

His recording was completed in 343 takes. Lisiecki doesn't like excessive edits — "I don't like faking things that are impossible in real life," he explains — and wanted to ensure that everything on the new disc would be possible in a performance, albeit an optimal one.

And despite his obvious respect for Gould, this is an area in which Lisiecki is clearly different.

"Glenn Gould was all about making things from tiny pieces... and I don't like that, really," he said. "Glenn Gould was a studio artist, he was a recording artist. Myself, I'm a live performing artist. That's my main passion and recording's only a part of that, for me. So it's a little bit different.

"And maybe that'll change in time, but for now that's what I enjoy."

Word from a new Lisiecki fan, piano-maniac Charlie from Brno:

Don't you love the way this kid plays an old chestnut! It's like new again.

And here's his Messiaen, it's all about the touch. This is just gorgeous — there is one chord that appears twice (maybe three times) that is sooooo perfect — it's one of Messiaen's magic angel chords. I melt every time I hear it.

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