Walking through a German airport on a recent weekend, classical pianist Jan Lisiecki braced himself for three recitals in Japan. After a four-day stay in Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo, it was off to Beirut, Lebanon, followed by a stop in his hometown, Calgary, Alberta. It’s not a normal schedule for a 19-year-old, but Lisiecki tries to keep it normal.
Since 2007, the year he won the Virginia Waring International Piano Competition for juniors, he has shared the stage with world-famous artists Yo-Yo Ma and Gil Shaham. He has performed at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, at London’s Royal Albert Hall and Wigmore Hall for the BBC Proms, and in April, he joins the Philadelphia Orchestra for five performances and a tribute to Mozart.
Between all of the accolades and appearances, he restores his sense of normal — and finds inspiration — in the sounds of everyday life. It could be voices in passing conversation, the ambience of a street corner or the shuffle of airport travelers. Anything ordinary works.
“Every single thing influences how you perform,” said Lisiecki, who returns to the Snowmass Chapel for the seventh time since 2007 today. “That’s why it’s important to live a full life and not only be in the practice room and hotel room working on your scores.”
In Snowmass, Lisiecki will find escape in a healthy snowpack, as he plans to ski three full days on the mountain. The 2013 Gramophone young artist of the year says he is not like other classical musicians: He won’t shy away from a sport he has enjoyed since age 5, when he began playing piano.
Someone had suggested his Polish parents, who are not musicians, immerse their child with classical music. Neither parent took the suggestion seriously until a friend loaned them a 100-year-old piano. The young Lisiecki was keen on languages and math, but it was the “element of unknown and the freedom” that turned him onto music.
When Snowmass Chapel music director Paul Dankers saw Lisiecki perform for the first time, he was struck by the 12-year-old’s mature delivery.
“(Young performers) often play the piano like it’s a typing exercise,” Dankers told the Snowmass Sun in 2013. “It’s completely devoid of emotion. But that wasn’t the case with him. He played with such depth.”
Seven years after that performance, Lisiecki returns to Snowmass with an all-Chopin program, consisting of Grand Valse Brilliante Op. 18, Chopin Preludes (24), 3 Nocturnes Op. 9, 3 Valses Op. 64 and Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise Brilliante Op. 22. Lisiecki is particularly excited to play the works of Chopin, a composer he said is loved by all audiences.
“Perhaps it’s that Chopin always had a longing, a pain, a suffering, but somehow it’s approachable and understandable,” he said, adding that the Snowmass venue also makes this performance special.
Despite its small-town identity, he said Aspen/Snowmass is well-respected at the national level.
“You can really see it when you’re there, that the audiences, they come and they’re well-versed,” he said. “They know what they’re coming to listen for. It’s not something foreign to them, and as a soloist and as an artist, you can appreciate it and definitely feel it.”
Whether it’s a positive or negative response, Lisiecki said he responds to the audience. If concert-goers are inattentive, which he said is rare, he will ignore them. If they are engrossed, he taps into it. Either way, he tries to establish a connection, maybe by playing a “pop-100 piece,” followed by something unfamiliar.
In his third year at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, Lisiecki anticipates graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music next year. Despite his life on the road and all the fulfillment it provides, he is firmly set on earning degree. When he’s not overloaded by his own work and music, he’ll listen to classical pieces, jazz or even modern pop music. But for inspiration, the best thing is raw daily life.
“My life is already very much infused with music on a day-to-day basis,” Lisiecki said just before checking in for a flight in Frankfurt. “When people are walking in the streets and they’re plugged into their iPods, for me that’s unimaginable.”