Interview: Pianist Jan Lisiecki in tune with spirit of spontaneiety in performance

Jan Lisiecki, seen here at Glenn Gould’s Steinway at the National Arts Centre, performs three recitals for Stratford Summer Music this week.

The spirit of Glenn Gould looms large at this year’s Stratford Summer Music Festival, especially in the five pianists who have been invited to give matinee recitals at St Andrew’s Church.

Most include the music of J.S. Bach on their programmes. But the real message is not Bach, nor is it how Gould played Bach. Rather, this is a celebration of the art of interpretation — and how the same pieces by the same old masters end up sounding completely different at the hands of each artist.

Calgarian Jan Lisiecki is the first to take to the piano at St Andrew’s Church, with a special series of three morning recitals, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The first concert is about Bach and Mozart; the second is all Chopin, the composer with which Lisiecki first grabbed the world’s attention; and the third is a compelling outing featuring a chamber-music reduction of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, which he’ll perform with the Annex String Quartet.

This is Lisiecki’s third annual visit to Stratford. At the first, he was a teenage curiosity who played with a maturity well beyond his 14 years. This time, Lisiecki, now 17, arrives as an in-demand international artist sporting his first big-label album.

By the end of the year, the Calgarian (and student at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould School) will have performed nearly 80 concerts around the world — both in solo recital and with major orchestras. That’s more than most professional pianists care to play in a year.

And this is just the start of what will, hopefully, be a long and respected career.

At this point in Lisiecki’s career, his playing is notable for its elegant simplicity and technical clarity. Here is an anti-virtuoso, working hard to put the focus on the music rather than himself.

He is well on his way to having as distinctive a voice as Glenn Gould as well as his fellow Stratford-visiting pianists, Simone Dinnerstein, Gabriella Montero, David Jalbert and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

In conversation, Dinnerstein, Montero and Jalbert have spoken of the struggles of interpretation, of trying to figure out exactly what sounds right for each piece of music. Glenn Gould spent a lot of time explaining his interpretive approach.

Each performer does what they believe is correct. All will respect the printed page. Yet the results are as different as their individual personalities.

When I asked Lisiecki what makes a good interpretation during a chat over the weekend, he recalled how Gould would say we play not with our fingers, but with our mind.

“I think you can take that a bit further and say we play not with our fingers but with our mind and our heart. That’s what I strive for, which is why I look up to his performances,” Lisiecki said.

Mind and heart are nice, but vague terms.

“It comes down to what feels natural for you often feels the same way for the audience,” Lisiecki elaborated. “Because we’re all human beings, we experience things in much the same way on a most basic level.

“I think if someone plays something not just because they were told to, or taught to, or they felt they had to, or because they saw the score and just read the notes… If they put something from themselves into the music, then the audience can understand that.

“An audience can hear when a player is not convinced of what they’re playing. It’s not about having cockiness or an attitude or self-assertiveness. It’s about feeling that what you do is your own, and comes from your heart. It comes from what you believe in this music.”

It is just like an actor becoming a character, giving a film or a play a stamp of authenticity.

But an interpretation is not something set in stone — and Lisiecki rejoices in that. What feels right one day may not suit the next. Sometimes it’s because of a bad piano, or a cranky audience, or perhaps a passing snowstorm.

“I really like the part of performing that means improvising an interpretation, of changing things,” he said. “Often you learn the most doing that, because you have these ideas. Some of them are fantastic and some of them are pretty bad or not so good. You learn from them about what you might do in the future. Over time, you add something to the performance. That also keep it interesting for audiences.

“You always have to believe, as an artist, that you’re doing something new – you make it interesting for yourself and for the audience at the same time.”

It is safe to say that each of the five pianists coming to Stratford would heartily agree with Lisiecki’s assessment.

For all the details on these concerts, click here.

John Terauds


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