On Monday evening, the Victoria Symphony’s Legacy Series continued with a program whose centrepiece, Chopin’s E-minor piano concerto, showcased the youngest but most talked-about of the orchestra’s soloists this season: Jan Lisiecki.
A native of Calgary, Lisiecki is barely 18 — he celebrated that birthday here, on Saturday — and is a bachelor’s-degree student at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. But he is already a star on the international music scene. Managed by IMG Artists, he performs all over the world — New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Tokyo — and he signed with the world’s premier classical label, Deutsche Grammophon, when he was just 15. (His CD of Mozart concertos, released last spring, has been nominated for a Juno Award.)
Two weeks ago, when the legendary Martha Argerich dropped out of a concert and recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in Bologna, Italy, conducted by Claudio Abbado, Lisiecki was tapped to substitute for her on one day’s notice — and that speaks volumes about his stature.
Lanky and tousle-haired, with a warm, affable platform manner, Lisiecki charmed his audience on Monday, especially when he spoke before his encore (a Chopin nocturne). And his performance revealed an unquestionably gifted pianist, if not one whose artistry rises to the level of his public relations, or heralds the emergence of a major Chopinist.
(And speaking of Chopinists: Enough, please, with clichés about the magical ability of DNA to make music. I refer to this, from the Victoria Symphony’s publicity: “With his Polish ancestry, he is perfectly suited to perform the music of Chopin.” Yes, his name is pronounced “yahn leesh-YET-skee,” his parents are Polish, and he speaks the language, and no, this gives him no special insight into Chopin’s idiosyncratic style.)
Lisiecki’s playing is technically commanding and polished, sensitive and big-hearted, though he does not come across as a particularly penetrating or original interpreter with a distinctive musical personality, and there were no surprises in his reading of the E-minor concerto, which sometimes seemed tasteful to a fault. There is some poetry and power in his playing, but no profound introspection or fire. I did not hear the reverie and fantasy, the sophisticated tempo rubato, the delicate and flexible passagework, the felicities of touch and tone that mark the truly great Chopin player.
Can such things be expected from a teenager? Of course not. But very large, very adult claims are being made for Lisiecki, by handlers, colleagues and reviewers, and I believe these claims are exaggerated. Lisiecki says he hates the term “prodigy,” yet prodigiousness is still the essence of his appeal — Monday’s audience plainly found him adorable — and so he reaps a sort of “prodigy bonus,” getting A-plus marks for B-plus work because of his age.
Soon enough, though, he will stop being a prodigy. Then what? There is reason to wonder, for the history of music is littered with the skeletons of prodigies whose early success fatally compromised their artistic development.
Lisiecki seems to surmount easily, even joyfully, the considerable musical and mental and logistical challenges of his busy career. He insists that he has never been pushed or exploited, but he has apparently never been restrained, either. Perhaps he should be. Maintaining a punishing professional schedule through his crucial formative years, will he evolve into an interesting, mature, thinking performer, or will he burn out or grow stale?
I actually sensed the spectre of staleness on Monday. Lisiecki has already been performing Chopin’s E-minor concerto for years — a performance recorded when he was 13 was released in 2010 — and I found myself wishing that he would play it less and think about it more. (Next month alone he will perform it seven more times.)
But who has time to think while feeding the insatiable maw of an international concert and recording career? Lisiecki gave almost 80 concerts last year and is on track to give at least as many this year, and for his second Deutsche Grammophon CD, to be released next month, he recorded nothing less than Chopin’s études, though he seems hardly ready to address the interpretive challenges of this music.
Lisiecki has the talent and technique, and perhaps the creative vision and depth of feeling and insight, to become an extraordinary pianist. But he is not that pianist yet, and to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a PR juggernaut that, while enriching his present, has the potential to damage his future.
© Copyright 2013