Jan Lisiecki
Photo by Christoph Köstlin Courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon
Emerging Masters

Jan Lisiecki: “The music speaks for itself”

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Short Profile

Name: Jan Milosz Lisiecki
DOB: 23 March 1995
Place of birth: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Occupation: Pianist

Jan, your many performances and recordings of Chopin’s piano concertos are world-renowned in classical music. What’s the secret to playing Chopin?

For me, of course, Chopin is a composer I feel very connected to. When I started playing his music, there was a natural affinity of some sort. And I do think there's a specific way to playing each composer's work, but the big caveat is that it's also your own particular way. Out of all the composers, I feel like finding my voice with Chopin was the easiest; it was almost already there from the beginning. With the other composers I'd have to learn, what exactly is my approach to Beethoven? What is my approach to Bach? But with Chopin, it feels as if it’s there without forcing it, without any particular effort.

Why do you think that connection is so strong?

The biggest reason, I think, is just that it feels like it’s meant to be for my instrument. I think his sound structure and his palette really align with mine, with how I like to hear the piano, what I like about it… The colors, the sound, the dynamics. I think that his phrasing and his use of the melodic line and singing line is also unparalleled. It’s sort of the perfect fit in many ways!

“That is my overarching ambition: to give light to all the beauty and all the genius that is already in the music.”

How do you go about adapting that musical language to your playing style?

I think in my case, there is always a simplicity and respect for the score. That is my sort of overarching ambition: to give light to all the beauty and all the genius that is already in the music; that means just putting yourself in the background, and putting the music in the foreground. The biggest challenge when you perform is simply to engage the audience and to give it your all. The technical aspects, hopefully by the time you're on stage, are mastered to the point of no doubt. And then the technique is there just to serve the music so that you can surpass that point and let the music flow. The best performances are those where you're not thinking, “What am I doing now? And what am I going to be doing in five seconds?” But rather the music comes naturally. I think this is what I try to achieve in my concerts.

So that doesn’t change depending on the composer whose work you’re playing?

It doesn't matter which composer I'm playing. But at the same time, each composer has a different style — and it's sometimes it's difficult after I've played a lot of Chopin to move to Mozart or Bach, suddenly, it feels like the sudden leap, like, “Whoa, this uses a completely different aspect of my instrument.” But of course, as with everything, you learn to jump from one to the other.

As a performer, do you still feel like a storyteller even though the story was written by someone else?

Most definitely! It's not simply a matter of reading the notes. You start with this very beautiful framework, this springboard. And after that, it's up to you. It’s the same for actors of any sort, you know, the text is what it is, but you still have that artistic freedom to add your own emotions and experiences.

During your performances, you are using your whole body, you’re often sweating — so it seems like there is a physical aspect to your artistry as well as an emotional one.

There is something to be said for the relationship that one has with the piano. The piano is a percussive instrument. It's a big instrument. But the reason that I'm using my whole body and that I’m sweating is not only because of the physical aspect — I mean, I'm not the loudest, most bombastic pianist. I'm not sweating when I'm practicing at home, and I'm playing the same things. It's because in that moment when I'm there for the audience, I'm really giving it everything I can. It's what makes a performance special.

So your physicality doesn’t depend on the difficulty of the song you’ve chosen?

No, I mean, there are certainly very difficult works for the piano. But in a sense, once you've learned them, they don't get any harder, they just become easier. So if you've learned it, and you’ve spent the time with it that you needed to, after that you aren’t trying to surpass yourself every time. It’s just that when you're on stage, you have this music and you have one chance to share it exactly how you want to.

Jan Lisiecki plays Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor.

What is it about a certain piece of music that makes you want to play it for a concert if the technical difficulty isn’t really a factor?

It's a variety of factors, beginning with: Do I feel a connection with the music? Of course, it's important. Often for putting together a recital program, which is when I'm alone on stage and I have complete control over what's going on, it's not only about playing a bunch of pieces that somebody might like, it's about creating the entire evening. You're an entertainer after all. You are on stage in front of thousands of people and you have to connect to all of them. You need to think about: how do I maintain their interest? How do I give them a little bit of reprieve? How do I present pieces that they might be hearing for the first time?

That’s a lot of responsibility, isn’t it? Especially when you were doing this as a teenager.

It's a very big responsibility, and it does take a bit of time. When I was younger, I would basically just choose a bunch of pieces that I like to play and put them together. Soon I came to realize that there was more to it than just playing. It's wonderful to have an audience who is happy until the very last note; so if I find something that works, I tend to stick with it for the season.

Did you feel the pressure of performance more heavily when you were younger?

By nature, I'm a shy person, and I come into my element when I'm on stage. I can play and speak to thousands of people with no issue, but it's more because I'm representing somebody else. I'm only there as a representative of the music. So even though when I was younger and called a prodigy pianist or a virtuoso kid, the moment you start playing, I think it changes. Maybe the audience has come to hear this kid, maybe they’re a bit doubtful because you’re so young — but the music speaks for itself.