Pianist Jan Lisiecki talks about breathing new life into classical favourites ahead Abu Dhabi Festival debut
Jan Lisiecki is sick and tired of talking about his age. But then again, he did perform with an orchestra for the first time at the age of 9 and released his first CD at 15 – recordings of Chopin’s two not-exactly-easy-to-play piano concertos, no less.
So it’s understandable that the pianist has been loudly announced as a “child prodigy” on banners at every concert hall he plays.
But not anymore, on Monday, March 23, the day before his performance at the Abu Dhabi Festival, Lisiecki leaves his teens behind as he turns 20 – something the Canadian musician hopes will signal the end of the hype.
“I’m almost 20,” he says. “I actually turn 20 on the day I fly to Abu Dhabi, so I think, hopefully, the age part will disappear soon.”
Lisiecki will perform Chopin’s first 12 études, something he’s known for after his third CD, which was a collection of those same masterworks.
He will also perform solo works by Bach, Grieg, Mendelssohn and Paderewski and give a post-concert talk.
Do you feel nervous about playing in Abu Dhabi for the first time?
The first time in any country is always a bit of a surprise. The beautiful thing about being a pianist is that the pianos are always the same. And generally, music crosses boundaries, borders and nationalities, so no matter whether the audience is familiar with classical music, if it’s performed at a high level everyone can understand it.
Of the three CDs you have released, two of them exclusively contain works by Chopin. Why does he speak to you so much?
Chopin had such a gift – whatever he wrote came from a place that not all composers can reach. He simply expressed his emotions and we [pianists] like interpreting his music because we have this liberty to change what it is and tell a slightly different story.
There exists a great demand to continually reinterpret these old masters. Do you ever wish there was more demand to hear contemporary composers performed in the concert hall?
It’s very important that we keep classical music alive and there are two ways to do that: new contemporary compositions, and reinventing the great masterworks.
The reason people continue to attend concerts to hear something they might have heard many, many times before is because every time they hear it, it will be different.
Classical music is a live art. You cannot control every single detail of it. That’s the beauty, I think. How Chopin or Mozart or Bach would have played 200 years ago is so different to how we’d play it today. Yet it’s still the same music.
My role now is to discover the roots of classical music and breathe in something new – not radical, not drastic, but something to keep it alive.
Does that mean musical composition has reached its peak? Is there less intrinsic worth to contemporary work?
I’m not sure – we have a tendency as people to appreciate great art only 50 or 100 years after it was created. It’s hard to judge right now because some of the music is so ahead of its time we can’t really understand what’s in it.
As someone who found success at a very young age, where do you sit on the nature-nurture debate?
If we found the formula or recipe we could make a lot of money. But there is no formula, that’s the problem. I’ve met so many incredible, famous musicians and I’ve come to the realisation that there is no one way to get where they are. There’s lots of hard work and there’s that unknown – you simply can’t quantify why one person plays well and why somebody else can’t reach out to the audience.
I don’t come from a musical family. Neither of my parents are musicians. I didn’t have a dream of being a pianist; it wasn’t something I was pursuing as a goal. It came into my life and it came in a very calm and natural way, and I was happy to be taken along by the tide.
• Jan Lisiecki performs at Emirates Palace on Tuesday, March 24, at 8pm as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival. Tickets, Dh150, are available at www.timeouttickets.com
Updated: March 22, 2015 04:00 AM