Going Places Fast

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Jan Liesecki is a tall, gaunt, 16-year-old with a mop of Bieber-esque blonde hair who’s poised to become a piano phenomenon. From Calgary, Alberta, he’s already made about 100 concerto appearances – and in the coming months will debut with the Orchestre de Paris, the BBC Symphony, the Cologne Philharmonic and Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, among others. And last year he signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. He hasn’t yet played with the big American orchestras, but surely it’s just a matter of time.

I heard Lisiecki for the first time on Friday night (July 15), when the Brott Music Festival brought him to Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio to appear with Boris Brott’s National Academy Orchestra. Personally, I’d rather assess a new pianist in a solo recital than in an orchestral appearance. But the fact that he played two concertos on this program – Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 and Liszt’s Concerto No. 2 – made it possible to gain a broader perspective on this young artist.

With the Mozart, Lisiecki favoured an introspective “less is more” approach. Throughout, he played with fluidity and a clear sense of direction – and his passage-work didn’t sound like work at all. Yet at the end of it all, I couldn’t help thinking that there are more than a few talented youngsters in the world who could do as well. What, if anything, made Lisiecki so special?

That question was answered when he sat down once again for the Liszt. A rich drama unfolded, full of strength, with long climaxes to thundering climaxes; but also with moments of sweetness, repose – and chamber-like subtlety when he accompanied the solo cello. Here, Lisiecki’s playing was prodigious in the best sense of the word: mature beyond its years, with the portent of greater things to come.

An encore finally gave us a chance to hear a touch of solo playing. As a nod to his own Polish ancestry, he performed Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64. No. 2 with restrained elegance and a touch of mystery.

Remarkably, Lisiecki has vaulted over the piano-competition industry (for some major competitions he’s still too young even to enter), and has emerged at 16 with a professional calendar that would be the envy of many concert-pianists twice his age or older (see here). It looks like the sky's the limit for Jan Lisiecki.