Pianist Jan Lisiecki has played more than 70 concerts this year, including a sold-out season-opening performance with the Orchestre de Paris, and he’s only 16. This week and next, the wunderkind from Calgary tours Atlantic Canada with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, music director Pinchas Zukerman and guest conductor Julian Kuerti.
How did you and Pinchas Zukerman settle on Mozart’s Concerto No. 20 for this tour?
The choice was rather simple. Among the Mozart concertos, No. 20 is unusual, both in its form and because it’s in a minor key. The other major reason is that I’ll be recording it in January for Deutsche Grammophon, with Christian Zacharias and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
You began a bachelor of music program this fall at Toronto’s Glenn Gould School (in the Royal Conservatory of Music). How can you be a full-time student when you’re travelling so much?
I do all my coursework on the road. I go to Toronto for lessons with my teacher, Marc Durand, and to take exams. When I get time off, I go home to Calgary.
Is touring different for you than it might be for an older pianist?
At 16, I can’t even stay in a hotel alone yet, so my mom always travels with me. My dad comes along sometimes as well, when we have a little more time in a place. The music world can be lonely, so it’s great to have somebody you can trust and talk to about what’s going on. At the moment, the only people who can really do that are my parents.
What language do you speak with them?
Polish. I was born in Canada but my parents knew I would learn English just from living here, so Polish is my first language.
Do people assume that because you’re a Polish-Canadian pianist, you must be mad for Chopin?
Of course. They often ask if Chopin is my favourite composer. I truly cherish his work, but I also love Bach and Mozart, just as Chopin did. This year alone I’ve played a lot of different concertos: Liszt No. 2, Beethoven No. 3, Mozart 20 and 21, and the Chopin No. 1.
What else will be on your debut album with DG?
We will pair the Mozart Concertos No. 20 and 21. I really like that idea, because they were composed simultaneously, and yet they’re completely different and contrasting pieces. My goal with this record is to show who I am as a musician, and not just how fast or how proficiently I can play. I don’t want to show off. That was one of the reasons I signed to DG and not another label, that they agreed with me about this. There would have been convincing needed with other labels that were interested.
What do you do when you’re not playing the piano, studying or travelling?
In my time between things, I’m normal. I like skiing, and going for bike rides with my dad. I like reading.
Do you have a favourite book?
One of my favourites is Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. I’ve reread a few times, and I really love it.
What kind of pianos do you expect to find in Atlantic Canada?
I assume they’ll be Steinways in most places. Part of the art of being a touring pianist is that you have to adjust to the instrument available, to its limitations and strengths. That makes it interesting and challenging from venue to venue. It’s always great to have new colours and to be able to explore different things. Of course, an awful piano is an awful piano, and then you just try to get the best out of it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The National Arts Centre Orchestra’s tour of Atlantic Canada continues through Nov. 25.