Q&A: Jan Lisiecki on the enduring allure of Chopin’s piano music

Jan Lisiecki. Photo: Mathias Bothor

Southam Hall has seen a lot of Chopin lately. Montreal’s Louis Lortie tackled all the Etudes and Preludes, now Calgary’s Jan Lisiecki will tackle the Polish composer’s first piano concerto in performances on April 12 and 13 at 8 p.m. In advance, Lisiecki answered some emailed questions from ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb

Q. On Oct. 12. 1830, a very young Frederick Chopin played his Piano Concerto No. 1 in its premiere. Do you consider that night and this piece when you, 22-year-old Jan Lisiecki, sit down to perform it?

A. I don’t necessarily think age is important in performance, or in composition, or in music in general. It’s amazing to think what Chopin, Mozart and other composers were able to do at such a young age. Their gifts transcended any numbers, or birth years, or dates; it was just an innate capability.

So I’m not trying to compare myself to them in the least. But I hope that when music is performed on the highest level the age, the number, stops to matter as well. That is my goal. To simply make the music speak for itself and for the audience forget there is a pianist and an orchestra on stage and be taken away by what is going on there..

Q. How important is Chopin to you? What does he represent for you?

A. Chopin is important for me, not just because of my Polish heritage, but also for his writing for the piano. I think, principally, for his writing for the piano; his method of making the instrument surpass it’s capabilities to actually make it sing, to weave such long phrases, to actually tell a story, that is an incredible gift that Chopin gave us.

Q. It seems fair to say that concertos No. 1 and 2 have helped make your name as an artist. What is their place in your development as a player?

A. I have definitely played Chopin’s first and second piano concertos many dozens of times. Some of the first performances were with Howard Shelley, Alexander Shelley’s father, conducting. So this is a gift to play Chopin for the first time with Alexander. Howard really started my career in Poland, it was the first time I played there actually. So really I have close links and deep gratitude to the Shelley family for the incredible role they have played in my life.

Q. Is there a Shelley style that father and son share?

A. I’m not sure there is a Shelley style. This is very hard to judge. I think Alexander probably wouldn’t want to be compared to his father. Everybody has their own approach, own style.

Q. You will be going with NACO next fall on its tour of western Canada. What do you expect?

A. Tours are always the most fun. I remember our NACO tour of the Atlantic provinces we had some adventures. The ferry broke down between Newfoundland and the mainland. They had to turn around the truck and return to St. John’s. On the charter flight they put everything that could fit. In the end we played in Charlottetown in casual clothes and we had a blast and so did the audience. The double basses didn’t have their instruments and they had a little bit of a hard time, but that’s touring, … you never know what to expect.

Q. What is on the horizon for you?

A. I have just released a new recording of music by Chopin works for piano and orchestra. It’s my fourth recording with Deutsche Gramophone, so at the moment I’m waiting for the right opportunity to present itself for another recording. I don’t record just because. I have concerts all across Canada and Europe and debuts in the U.S. with orchestras such as Boston and return invitations with others such as San Francisco.

Q. Can we expect Chopin to continue to play a role in your music for a very long time?

A. Chopin will always have a role in my life. It feels very natural to me. Whenever I start playing it it makes complete sense. … I feel like I can immediately understand it and try to communicate that with the audience. There is a never ending pool of discovery in his music.

For more information and for tickets, please see 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.