Arts & Entertainment, Music

Performing without conforming: Pianist Jan Lisiecki on why classical music isn’t dead

Twenty-two-year-old Calgary pianist Jan Lisiecki is far from being a slacker. After making his orchestral debut at age nine, the musician rose to international fame once The Fryderyk Chopin Institute released a recording of his live renditions of Chopin’s piano concertos. Four albums later, he now performs roughly 80 times per year. In the past month alone, he has played in six countries, with appearances already lined up through 2020.  

When he isn’t taking a break from practice to go skiing, the young pianist performs at some of the world’s most prestigious concert venues such as Carnegie Hall–all while pursuing his bachelor’s of Music Performance at the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t finished my bachelor’s because of performances,” Jan Lisiecki said bashfully. “It’s funny. There’s this paradox, here I am performing in the biggest concert halls as a pianist and yet, I don’t have a bachelor’s of music. It’s sort of funny actually.”

This week, Lisiecki’s jam-packed schedule brings him to the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. He’ll take the stage alongside acclaimed cellist and festival founder Denis Brott on June 14.

Despite his impressive list of accomplishments, Lisiecki doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s excited to play Beethoven’s rarely-performed Fantasy, Op. 77, which he candidly describes as, “pretty much how you imagine Beethoven’s character: Rather outgoing and sort of bipolar.” Lisiecki derives his enthusiasm for the art from its ability to offer unique interpretations to listeners in person.

“Even though you may have been playing some of the concertos hundreds of times, you still find new and fresh things,” Lisiecki said. “Music stays in the moment. The audience that was there that particular evening plus you are the only people who leave with that memory of your performance and it’s a gift. And it sort of feels incredibly individual, and that’s one of the greatest things about classical music.”

As a musician in the public eye and a UNICEF Ambassador to Canada, Lisiecki feels it is his duty to expose young audiences to classical music. He promotes the genre by giving lectures and planning informal performances for elementary schoolchildren.

“It’s important for me to reach out to schools and make sure that children have access to classical music at the highest level,” Lisiecki said. “And I’m not just saying playing the recorder or singing in the choir but actually understanding and knowing what it’s about.”

Classical music has been subject to persistent misconceptions, namely that it is “boring,” or as Lisiecki puts it, “stuffed up.” For him, the key to drawing younger audiences to concerts is offering shorter shows without compromising the caliber of the works performed.

“The modern world needs shorter and simply, high quality performances,” Lisiecki said. “[A classical music concert] doesn’t have to be [so long] that [it] bores you to death [….] That doesn’t mean that great masterworks shouldn’t be interpreted. […. In] my experience, […] when people come to the casual concerts, it’s more for the experience than for how they can dress. It’s more for the fact that the concert starts earlier […] and they still have a nice evening.”

While he cites performing in front of audiences as “another great teacher” for a musician, he also takes pride in his classical training. Some music teachers are notorious for suppressing their students’ individuality as they interpret new works. Lisiecki, however, was quick to credit his mentor from the beginning of his university studies, pianist Marc Durand, for encouraging him to express his aesthetic ideas.

“I am very individual in how I see music,” Lisiecki said, “But it’s always appreciated to have someone give you advice in the most caring way without imprinting on you exactly how you should do things and that, to me, was Marc Durand.”

In addition to his teacher’s guidance, Lisiecki also heavily relies on his own creative instinct throughout his career. The pianist even promises to present a slightly different take on Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 20 at his June 16 performance.

“I had, always, my own vision and I had to stay true to myself,” Lisiecki said. “I couldn’t actually go out on stage and simply try to rehash what somebody told me was the right thing to do.”


The Art of Jan Lisiecki takes place June 14 and 16, 7:30 p.m., at Pollack Hall, McGill University (555 Rue Sherbrooke O).

Student tickets $28.50.

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