It’s obvious immediately upon meeting piano phenom Jan Lisiecki — with his ramrod posture, pinpoint diction and sage maturity — that he is not a typical teenager.
His lifestyle, certainly, is vastly different. For instance, when the 18-year-old received word of his Juno Award nomination for classical album of the year, he was navigating the powdery peaks of Aspen, Colo., with his dad. A couple days prior, he had been performing at an exclusive black-tie gala in Palm Springs, Fla. Less than a week earlier, it was a sold-out engagement at Tokyo’s 2,000-seat Suntory Hall with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.
When the Junos are contested Sunday in Regina, Lisiecki will regrettably not be in attendance — he’s due for a week-long whisk through Germany.
He plays more than 100 concerts annually. Last year, he estimates that he flew over 3,000 miles — “a tremendous amount by any standard,” he says with typically precocious precision.
No, the Calgary native definitely isn’t living the usual life of a North American teenager. And he doesn’t mind one bit.
“I don’t think I’m missing out on much really from the typical teenage experience — and after all, what is typical?” he said in a recent interview in Toronto.
“I think everybody has their own way and their own needs and their own likes. And mine, personally, are doing what I do. Travelling: I love it. Performing: I love it. And I have great friends, all around the world.
“I don’t need to hang around in a mall.”
Lisiecki, clearly, savours the life of a touring classical musician — and the elements that led there, he says, came naturally.
Lisiecki began playing piano at five and made his orchestral debut at nine. The intense practising required never seemed a burden, he says, and he waves off a question about how he established the necessary discipline at such a young age.
“The discipline is just a part of doing it,” he said. “It’s very easy for me to continue because there is this fantastic reward at the end of the journey.”
He’ll release “Chopin Etudes” this Tuesday, fortuitous timing given his Juno nod — which he calls a “very special” honour — and the new recording showcases his emerging artistic identity. The album will be issued on Deutsche Grammophon, marking the historic label’s first recording of the Chopin etudes since Maurzio Pollini released his renowned take in 1972.
Asked about following Pollini’s performance, Lisiecki — who’s in his second year of a bachelor of music degree at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto — offers a paraphrased quote from Glenn Gould: “If you have nothing new to say, then don’t say it. Don’t record it.”
“I truly believe in that quote,” he continues. “While my etudes aren’t radical or earth-shattering, I think they bring lots of music — something which sometimes lacks from the etudes because people really get involved in the technical qualities.”
His recording was completed in 343 takes. Lisiecki doesn’t like excessive edits — “I don’t like faking things that are impossible in real life,” he explains — and wanted to ensure that everything on the new disc would be possible in a performance, albeit an optimal one.
And despite his obvious respect for Gould, this is an area in which Lisiecki is clearly different.
“Glenn Gould was all about making things from tiny pieces … and I don’t like that, really,” he said. “Glenn Gould was a studio artist, he was a recording artist. Myself, I’m a live performing artist. That’s my main passion and recording’s only a part of that, for me. So it’s a little bit different.
“And maybe that’ll change in time, but for now that’s what I enjoy.”
Although he studies in Toronto, Lisiecki still lives at home in Calgary and completes most of his work by correspondence.
His mother accompanies him on tour. It was a necessity when he was a minor, but he sees no reason to make a change now that he’s 18. He is that rare teenager who — gasp! — enjoys spending time with his parents.
“I believe that when you travel alone, you miss at least half the experience,” he says. “It’s very difficult, the job part of performing. It takes a lot of time. It’s taxing. So it’s nice to have someone who can support you and be with you through that.
“And when you have those three days, you can go together with somebody and have those experiences together and have those memories together. That’s something that’s very important and that I cherish.”
Lisiecki does have other interests. He has mused on a future in math, and acknowledges a curiosity about music beyond the world of classical. He loves Pink Floyd and he loves jazz.
“I spend lots of time in taxis as well, which play all kinds of music, so I think I’m pretty well-versed,” he says with a smile.
As far as his future ambitions? Well, Canada’s top classical prodigy characteristically replies with wisdom beyond his 18 years.
“I’m really Canadian in this way. Canadians in the Olympics, they’re always thrilled if they get a personal best, not if (they) win a gold medal. That’s why we end up with so many silvers,” he says, smiling.
“And that’s me as well. I’m not ambitious in the sense that I have some dream. I’m really a person of the present…. I hope I can continue in the same direction I’m going. But I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future.
“There’s a few countries I’d love to visit,” he adds, rhyming off the United Arab Emirates as well as countries in Africa and South America. “I see on my calendar that it’s happening in the future. That’s my only real dream or wish.”