A Pianist Shares the Joy of Playing

June 29, 2020

by Marc Shulgold

Before we visit with this marvelous young musician, let’s get a couple of things out of the way.

First, how to pronounce his name: Jan Lisiecki doesn’t sound anything like it looks. So, let’s say it together: Yon Lih-SHETT-ski. His parents, as you might have guessed, are Polish, though his family have been longtime residents of Canada.

Next, it’s time to get past the non-stop media blitz from 15 years ago after he burst on the scene as a pre-teen Wunderkind. The words “genius” and “prodigy” followed the boy wherever he performed – which was often. If you check out some early YouTube videos, the hype was well-deserved. At 10, and as a teen, he was indeed a wonder to behold. Yet in every interview then and now, he quietly but vehemently dismissed those labels. “I just wanted to play the music,” he insists. “I never allowed anyone to call me a prodigy.”

Today, he’s 25 – way beyond the hype. However, he remains boyishly handsome, modest to a fault and is still engaged in a busy, successful concert career. He’ll appear with the Colorado Music Festival for their Virtual Festival on Thursday, July 16, to perform cadenzas from four of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos.

In March, we chatted by phone from his parents’ home in Calgary, Alberta, where he’d been holed up due to concert cancellations caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Clearly, he was happy to be resting in the town where he was born. But how did the family arrive in Canada? “We’d moved to Calgary because my Dad loved the mountains,” recalled Lisiecki. “Both of my parents are horticulturists, very bright people. They encouraged me in all sorts of pursuits. I loved skiing and math, and I started learning piano. But then, it took over my life.”

Studies began early, and proceeded with remarkable speed. “At 5, I began with a local teacher, who soon referred me to her teacher. I stayed with her for seven or eight years. By the time I was 15, I had no teacher. I just felt I had moved on. Teachers are there mainly to inspire you.” He enrolled at the University of Toronto, later beginning serious studies with Marc Durand at the University of Montreal. “Marc took me to another level,” the pianist said. “He nurtured my own talents.” Over the next few years, Lisiecki kept his home base in Calgary, flying to Montreal once or twice a month for intensive lessons with Durand, mostly to polish up new additions to his repertoire.

The transition from a clever, adorable boy with an unruly head of blond hair to serious professional musician seemed to unfold with magical ease. “I was very fortunate every step of the way,” he admitted. Soon, there were performances and photo-op appearances with such concert stars as Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. And concerts – lots of concerts, including a performance before Queen Elizabeth II and a crowd of 100,000 on Canada Day in 2011.

To all who met Lisiecki, it was clear that he kept his head on straight. For that, he gives credit to his parents. “They’d always ask me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ They didn’t want me to limit myself. They understood my passion for playing, but they stressed that I also had to do well in school, to have something in reserve in case a music career didn’t work out.”

But it did. Big time. The pianist’s performing calendar quickly began to fill, now averaging 100 concerts each season. The grind of travel, hotels, rehearsals, concerts, interviews, plus endless meet-and-greets does take its toll, he confessed. “The life of a musician isn’t for everybody. You just have to make it special.”

Which brings up those Chautauqua concerts – a demanding survey of four finger-busting Concertos by Beethoven. “I find them incredibly engaging,” Lisiecki noted. “Through them, you can see the growth of the concerto (genre).”

“I’ve played the [full] cycle four times now, usually over two nights.” He did agree that a pianist must exert immense physical strength just to survive performances of these demanding works. “You have to pace yourself, maybe hold half of your energy in reserve. It is exhausting – but so exhilarating. Playing them is very intensive. You live the music. Every performance leaves an imprint, so each time, we re-invent the music.”

A pianist, let’s remember, is not the sole presence in a concerto performance – the orchestra and, most significantly, the conductor are equal participants. Here, Lisiecki was outspoken in his praise of his conductor, Festival music director Peter Oundjian. “I’ve worked with Peter, and he is one of those special people. So kind and gracious. An ideal collaborator.”

Surely, this talented, self-effacing musician has experienced only warm relations with conductors during his busy concert career. Not necessarily, he replied with a chuckle. “I do have a black list (of conductors he’d rather avoid). It’s not many – I could count them on one hand. But there have been some.”

Jan Lisiecki will be the soloist in the Pianist Jan Lisiecki Performs Beethoven virtual concert by the Colorado Music Festival, on Thursday, July 16 at 7:30 pm. Join the Virtual Festival (it’s free!) by visiting www.coloradomusicfestival.org/register.

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