The Classical Station’s interview with Jan Lisiecki for My Life in Music

Interview with Jan Lisiecki
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: Christoph Köstlin and Deutsche Grammophon)

This week on Preview!, The Classical Station’s Rob Kennedy speaks with Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki about his recording of the Mendelssohn piano concertos. Jan Lisiecki has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Dresden, and the Chicago Symphony, and has worked with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Manfred Honeck, and Claudio Abbado.

KENNEDY: Our guest is the talented Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki. Good evening, Jan. You are in Poland right now.

LISIECKI: I’m in the midst of countless performances in Europe, as it would seem. Most of my life is spent here nowadays, or in North America, or anywhere but home. I have nearly a week between concerts where I’m playing Mendelssohn’s piano concertos on tour with Orpheus from New York, and I’ve come to visit my grandparents here in Poland.

KENNEDY: Tell us about the Orpheus Orchestra; it’s very special because it has no conductor.

LISIECKI: It’s a unique ensemble, and they really have created their own way of playing with no conductor. It’s a real privilege to work with them and to see how they make music. I enjoy it every time I see them.

KENNEDY: When you work with an orchestra that has a conductor, I would assume you as a soloist would be sitting down at some point and mapping out phrasing and tempi. How do you do that with a conductor-less orchestra?

LISIECKI: I actually prefer not to turn music into words. I think music has a natural flow, and for the most part I found that with musicians, even if you don’t have the same vision, words are very rarely needed to express and reconcile our differences. So even when I’m meeting with a conductor, I much prefer playing and I like to go straight into the rehearsal. That’s exactly how I did it with Orpheus. The first time we met was for the recording itself, which is rather unusual and a great commitment from both sides, because none of us knew what to expect and we were thrown straight into the fray, directly into the demanding environment of the studio. They were incredibly prepared, without a doubt. And as for the musical questions, everybody has ears and everybody has eyes. The few things that needed to be spoken were spoken and it was complete. The interpretation was settled upon.

KENNEDY: It sounds very democratic. I listened to your Mendelssohn recording, the one where you play the variations. The variations absolutely captivated me, simply because you seem to be one of those rare pianists that understands Mendelssohn. His work is finally wrought.

LISIECKI: I love Mendelssohn’s music. I think it has a lot to offer; it’s very soulful and very deep. Unfortunately, often it is dismissed simply as being frivolous or superficial. I find that it has a lot of depth and a lot of character. To give an example of how people don’t respect Mendelssohn’s music, in my opinion, at the Concert House in Vienna, a storied venue with 106 seasons behind it, they’ve started putting into their history how many times something has been played in their hall. It turns out that I was playing the Mendelssohn Second Piano Concerto for the 11th and 12th times out of 106 seasons. That is absolutely crazy to me, and I’m glad that I can bring it to a wider audience because I haven’t heard anybody dismiss the music once they’ve heard it in person.

KENNEDY: I was trained as an organist, so I played the Mendelssohn sonatas and the preludes and fugues, and was captivated in my teens and twenties by how beautifully crafted the music was. Where did you learn how to play Mendelssohn?

LISIECKI: Well, I learned how to play Mendelssohn very much by myself. I love the details and I think it was not such a great leap from playing Mozart. That’s perhaps a very simplified and easy association to make, but I find that Mozart’s music also required this refinement and attention to details. As you mentioned, it’s very well crafted, but it’s crafted in the details, in the way that each time something happens, it’s slightly different. I love it. I really appreciate it, and I enjoyed playing it tremendously.

KENNEDY: As the press describes you, you’re one of the top pianists of your generation. How does that notoriety strike you? How do you handle that?

LISIECKI: First of all, of course, it’s an honor. I think that it’s nice to represent the 21st century in classical music, and no matter in what way. And I hope that I remain true to the art.

KENNEDY: Jan, how old were you when you got the contract with Deutsche Grammophon?

LISIECKI: I think I was 15 or 16.

KENNEDY: How did that come about? Did they just sort of discover you? The reason I’m asking the question is because, of course, there’s another young person listening to this conversation and saying, “If Jan can do it, I can do it.”

LISIECKI: I have to preface everything I’m saying with the fact that I could have never imagined that I would become a classical musician. I don’t come from a musical family. I didn’t grow up in this sort of environment. I wasn’t even born in a city where classical music has a particularly strong presence, being from Calgary. Everything that I’ve done in my life has been incredibly natural and fortuitous. I worked quite hard to get where I am today, and I continue to do so. It’s sometimes challenging to trace back to those decisive moments where my life direction was altered. I sometimes had nothing to do with it.

In the case of Deutsche Grammophon, at that point had an offer on the table from a different label. I had dinner with them when I was playing a concert in Europe, and I declined the offer because they had a very particular idea of what they would like me to record for my first release. I was against it. I still don’t like the concept of such put together CDs. I like to have a very concrete and thought-through recording–not only pieces that can fit on one album or can be streamed. The very next day a Canadian producer from Deutsche Grammophon sent me an email that they had wanted to fly to come see me, but the flight had been cancelled. They came a few months later to hear me somewhere else. And everything proceeded very quickly from there.

KENNEDY: Do you find that the recording companies lay down the law about what you can or can’t record?

LISIECKI: Certainly they have their own concepts. They have their overarching ideas and wish lists. But from the very beginning I had a very strong idea of what I’d like to do and how I’d like to present myself, what I would like to share and which repertoire I would have something to say about at that moment. Of course, that’s always disputable and I don’t think everybody will agree with me, but the idea was that in 10, 20, or 30 years down the road, I would still feel satisfied and at peace with what I did. That’s why for my first recording I did Mozart’s 20th and 21st Piano Concertos. And of course, they’ve been recorded countless times, but I thought at that point I had something to say in those pieces and that they represented me as a pianist and as a musician. Deutsche Grammaphon agreed to doing that as a first project, and since then, everything else has come very naturally.

Join The Classical Station to listen to Jan Lisiecki’s interview at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 4th! Listen on 89.7 FM,, or our app!