What's Wrong With Mozart? Pianist Jan Lisiecki, 21, Asks the Same Question

Jan Lisiecki. (Mathias Bother/Deutsche Grammophon)

Jan Lisiecki is aware of the criticism directed at pianists of his generation. That audiences have regretted the loss of individuality exhibited on stage and at competitions, even as technical standards rise, is not lost on the 21-year-old wunderkind. But for Lisiecki, there is a way out: a composer who disposes of the confetti and reveals the true character and authenticity of the artist.

On Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall, the Canadian pianist makes his San Francisco Symphony debut in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 alongside the esteemed conductor James Conlon, who rounds out the program with Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” and Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony.

It is a strange phenomenon that Mozart, one of the revered pillars of classicism, is rarely showcased at top international piano competitions -- organizations whose raison d’etre is to uncover rarified artistic talent. Works of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Liszt, by contrast, are pounded out until they become hackneyed, often devoid of meaning and expression.

Jan Lisiecki's debut for Deutsche Grammophon, of Mozart's Concertos No. 20 and 21.
Jan Lisiecki's debut for Deutsche Grammophon, of Mozart's Concertos No. 20 and 21. (Deutsche Grammophon)

“It strengthens my belief that competitions are not looking for the best musician, overall, but the best performer, one who can deliver all the notes perfectly,” Lisiecki says. “Mozart doesn’t really fit that mold; everyone can play the notes, but you are left completely exposed with what you have to say because you cannot dazzle the audience with many notes. Mozart requires all the technique of the other composers, and more."

Vladimir Horowitz certainly believed so. A pianist known for his unsurpassed technique and individuality, Horowitz rediscovered Mozart in his eighties, lending credence to the belief that one must play Mozart when either very young or very old.

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“For most pianists, playing Mozart well is the ultimate challenge,” offers professor Marc Durand, Lisiecki’s last, and now retired, piano teacher. “Jan is a natural musician who can feel and understand Mozart’s style very well. He is also a very sincere and spontaneous performer, always well structured, clever and witty. His energy is very compelling and his personal charm is irresistible.”

Durand recalls working with Lisiecki on the concertos of Mozart, where lessons would often last as long as six hours. It was a conscious choice for Lisiecki, at age 16, to record Mozart’s Piano Concertos, Nos. 20 and 21, his first album with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. The program this Wednesday features No. 22.

“Looking at this concerto, there’s a lot of frivolous writing -- many scales, which you typically associate with Mozart,” Lisiecki says. “It’s predominantly for the right hand, with a few left hand passages here and there, but ultimately, you’re doing a lot of nothing. The difficulty, then, is turning this nothing into something. There’s nowhere to hide.”

Jan Lisiecki.
Jan Lisiecki. (Mathias Bother/Deutsche Grammophon)

As it turns out, Liseicki could not hide his musical gifts in Canada for long. According to Durand, who first heard him in competitions for young pianists in California and Minnesota, Lisiecki’s indelible qualities were apparent from the very beginning.

“As a child, his immense and rare creative talent was immediately noticeable," Durand says. "Already his playing was extremely sensitive, imaginative, intelligent and refined. Most importantly, he knew how to communicate his ideas with great conviction. He did not need competitions anymore. In my opinion, Jan is certainly a generational talent."

Beyond the praise, and Lisiecki's prodigious, natural technique, however, is the sense of authenticity and humility about how he's found success in the world of music, and how he intends to proceed.

“I never had this epiphany or realization that I’m special," he says. "Everybody plays differently, and somehow, some will be successful and others won’t. It’s luck, in many ways. There’s also hard work. I’m very lucky I never had the need to do big competitions. If you listen to all the rounds of certain top competitions, at some point, you just start listening to who’s playing perfectly. You don’t hear any music, you really aren’t struck by incredible performances that will leave a legacy. Ultimately, that’s why we go to concerts -- to experience something different.”

 

Jan Lisiecki performs with the San Francisco Symphony on Wednesday, June 8, at Davies Symphony Hall. Details here.

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