At just 24, Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki is experiencing a charmed career, and he’s thankful for his good fortune.
“I’m enjoying every day of it,” he said. “I’m still learning a lot on the road, but I know my place, and I feel very comfortable onstage. I’m happy to be sharing music with audiences. Most certainly, the adventure has been tremendous.”
In the nine years since he came to international attention, he has released a stream of albums on the Deutsche Grammophon label and has performed with an array of noteworthy ensembles, including the Cleveland Orchestra, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and BBC Symphony. In 2013, he was named Gramophone magazine’s Young Artist of the Year.
His next career milestone comes Dec. 12-14, when he makes his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut. He will serve as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467, one of two works that he recorded on his first Deutsche Grammophon album, released in 2012, when he was still in his teens. “It’s a wonderful piece,” Lisiecki said, “and it’s a joy to be playing Mozart any time.”
Besides making his CSO debut, he is also excited to collaborate for the first time with guest conductor Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony since 2008-09. “Anybody whom I speak to has only has positive things to say [about the maestro],” Lisiecki said. “And, of course, in this world, that is very rare, so it’s wonderful to hear that.”
Born to Polish parents in Calgary, Alberta, where he still resides, Lisiecki began piano lessons at age 5 and made his orchestral debut four years later with the Calgary Civic Symphony. “I don’t come from a musical family,” he said. “I never had any ambitions or dreams of becoming a pianist. But quite rapidly, I started playing concerts. And when you are playing a concert at the age of 10, 11 or 12, it’s a really exciting thing.”
In 2008, when he was just 13, he created something of a stir when he performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21, at a Polish festival titled Chopin and His Europe. He returned a year later as soloist in the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11. So successful were the two performances that the Fryderyk Chopin Institute wanted to release them commercially.
Lisiecki and his family resisted the idea, in part because the concerts were recorded for radio broadcasts and never intended for an album. But conductor Howard Shelley, who had led the two performances with the Sinfonia Varsovia, persuaded them to take the once-in-a-lifetime chance, and the recording was a big success, winning a Diapason d’Or Découverte in May 2010. That same year, the young pianist helped open the festivities surrounding the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, performing at the composer’s birthplace, Żelazowa Wola.
“Everything in my life has happened in a rather organic way,” Lisiecki said. “A lot of the best things that have happened were not forced. I would not have believed that at age 13 or 14, I would be releasing a recording.”
In January 2011, when he was just 15, he signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. He had been poised to sign with another label but hesitated, because he wasn’t comfortable with the repertoire it wanted him to perform for his first release. The next day he heard from DG. “Of course, I have a vague idea at this point how it happened, but it’s hard to unravel the strings of why they became involved,” he said. “I didn’t really have anybody pushing for me or pulling for me as a champion.”
He has released two DG recordings this year, an all-Mendelssohn album with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in February and a complete set of the Beethoven piano concertos in September. The latter, recorded with London’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, was timed to correspond to the international celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020.
In 2016, Lisiecki made his Carnegie Hall debut, delivering what New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini called a “remarkable performance” of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “Just 20 and making his Carnegie debut,” Tommasini wrote, “Mr. Lisiecki has won acclaim for combining refined technique, keen musical instincts and a poetic sensibility. He brought out the searching, mystical elements of this work. The first movement begins with the piano alone, playing the subdued theme. Mr. Lisiecki posed it like a wistful question for the orchestra to consider.”
So far, at least, Lisiecki has stuck primarily to the core repertoire, playing works by composers such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart and Schumann. “I still have a lot to explore, and I look forward to that,” he said. At the same time, he has made an effort to perform lesser-known works alongside those he regularly highlights. He noted that in October, when he played Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Concerto in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, he delivered just the 12th and 13th performances of the work in the hall’s 106-year history.
“I try to incorporate things that others don’t play,” he said, “and audiences will not have heard as often.”