Old school: Jan Lisiecki’s passionate about the traditions of music

Jan Lisiecki. Photo: Mathias Bothor

Jan Lisiecki is a bit of a traditionalist.

Sending postcards written with a fountain pen appeals to him. The 24 year old also likes long play records.

“I love the way music used to be on a record. You put this record on a long play from start to finish and it has a structure. … I like the old ways,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE as he was on his way to visit his Polish grandparents in Poznan.

The topic came up because his recording of a Mendelssohn piano concerto has been included in an Apple Music playlist. That’s cool, Lisiecki said, but he does worry about the world of music streaming.

“In music there are benefits to digital, but I hope it brings people into the core repertoire.”

He is concerned that listeners will just pick off certain popular pieces of music and miss the other great stuff that is out there.

“Take for example Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. It has the beautiful second movement which everyone knows from the movie (Elvira Madigan). It tugs at the heart strings and it’s so spectacular. Everyone wants to hear that. With streaming you can do that. But you won’t get to hear the first and the third movements. That is one of the great benefits of buying a record. You hear the whole piece as it was intended.

“Now you get playlists of the best classical music and you get a canned version. That is where I lose enthusiasm.”

But Lisiecki isn’t naive. He knows it’s the business today.

So, “you have to do what you can. My goal is not to make compromises in my artistic vision in order to satisfy the new requirements for streaming.”

Lisiecki is a busy performer. He played some 106 concerts last year and he’s not slowing down this year. He is often in Europe but he does get to North America regularly. In fact he’ll be at the National Arts Centre on April 17 and 18 playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major in a concert of French music.

It’s a piece he’ll play a few times in the next few weeks, including with NACO on their 50th anniversary tour of Europe, something he is looking forward to. He likes working with the NAC’s ensemble and music director Alexander Shelley. It’s like family, he said.

“I played the Ravel a few years ago and I wanted to get back to it. This presented a good opportunity. I like the piece very much and if you leave something for too long it leaves your repertoire.

Lisiecki believes Ravel’s music really stands out.

“He uses the Impressionist style to the best definition of the word. He surpasses the ideas we have of how a piano should sound.

“From the very start of the concerto, the piano is used for an effect of water, of shimmer. It is a very unusual beginning. On the one hand it is very blunt and sharp, but it is so delicate and fluid as well.

“To the audience, the jazzy elements are fascinating. The way he incorporates this form into classical music is another part that I think is unique to Ravel.”

Lisiecki doesn’t limit his musical interests however.

“I think every period is important and they co-exist. I hate to limit myself because you find inspiration from each period.”

In his musical practice, “I hope to record the best quality things. It’s so easy now to just go into the studio and record something, put it on Spotify or Apple Music and without having a label or a process of others hearing it and approving it. You can just do it yourself.

“When I record, I want to have something really special. Time will only tell if it works.”

He hopes if he does that people, especially younger people, will search out quality.

“I think it is important. But there is only so much I can do to get young people, for example, out to a concert. Being active on social media and being accessible to them and simply being young helps.”

Then, he said, it’s up to the presenter to create a program that works, put it on at the right time on the right day. Then ticket prices need to be more affordable.

Of course the desire for younger audiences for classical music has been the order of the day for decades.

“You read articles about this from the 1960s, so it’s not a new phenomenon. And yet, somehow the concert halls remain full.

The traditionalist points out that music in 17th and 18th centuries was not a public thing there were no concert halls. Mozart was performed in salons and to aristocrats.

“I think we are actually doing quite well. We just have to make sure we don’t compromise the product.

“For example, ff you sell out and music becomes secondary to a laser light show. I have had this by the way. I once played in a concert in Bristol, England, where they tried to emulate the Proms. They brought in a world class designer who created a laser show with smoke.

“I’m willing to explore all these concepts but ultimately this detracts from the music. It doesn’t enhance it in any way. It’s entertainment perhaps but it’s not about the music.

“There are different approaches, and I’m not saying anyone is wrong, but when it comes to a concert of mine I want to entertain you through the music.”

Lisiecki is active on social media but he’s even a traditionalist here.

His twitter feed, for example, features his love of travel and photography, along with links to reviews and other bits of business.

“My social media reflects me. I love photography, so the pictures that I take are ones that I find interesting. And I want to share them.

“I don’t want it to be all me, me, me. I also don’t want to share every moment, just these nice moments of what I saw and appreciated.

“You see something different when you look through a lens. You have to stop for a moment and capture something.”

His latest CD features two concertos by Mendelssohn and some other works recorded with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

He said he wanted to started including these pieces in his repertoire.

“These concertos aren’t programmed so much. I have always liked them and think they are overlooked.”

The range of repertoire for piano poses a dilemma for soloists, he said.

“You always feel you have lots to learn. For example, a conductor will ask you how many concertos you have played and you name about 30 and he asks for another that you haven’t played. Then he says you should learn it.”

That’s how the journey continues for Jan Lisiecki.

Lisiecki and Ravel
Where: Southam Hall
When: April 17 and 18 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.