Jan Lisiecki, A Tale of Two Washingtons

Chopin Piano Concerto in DC; Chopin Nocturnes and Études in Seattle

March 17, 2022

By S.E. Barcus

Over the past two months, I had the chance to check out pianist Jan Lisiecki, a relatively young man (about to turn 27) who is marketed as pretty hot stuff.  He is Polish-Canadian, and his claim to fame started when Poland recognized him as something special, awarding him as a young teen to play both Chopin piano concertos, both of which were recorded and released, which immediately led to Deutsche Grammophon sucking him up with a recording contract like the behemoth Yankees stealing up the best ball-players.  And all of that happened by the time he was 15.  I mean, I know classical music is obsessed with child prodigies more than any other artform, but … JFC.  15?!

So … I checked him out.  Twice.  Once in Washington State this past January 25, when he played a plethora of Chopin Études and Nocturnes, and again last night in Washington DC, when he performed what seems to be his calling card piece with the National Symphony Orchestra, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. 

I’m not privy to the inner working of the classical music business, but one cannot help but cynically think – “Polish-ancestry.  Check.  Seeming to corner the Polish-composer Chopin’s market (as if a “Polish” sensibility is inherited somehow).  Check.  Sprinkle in some of that “best pianist to come out of Canada since Glenn Gould” schtick for good measure.  Check.  In a good-looking young man who can definitely play the keys. Check.”  It all seems a little … “markety”.  It seems he very very very often plays Chopin.  Like, almost every single performance he gives.  At least in the recent past and upcoming European performances (with some Prokofiev thrown in here  — and Denver/Colorado Orchestra seems to get a special treat with some Grieg).  But overall … mostly Chopin.

Lisiecki at Benaroya Hall, Seattle, January 25

Lisiecki says in one of his online interviews that he’s being pretty adventurous by ‘forcing’ his record company to let him do some Mendelssohn, something not as frequently played.  For this young man, this is his “bad-ass rebellion”.  And to be sure, that’s cool that we got the 20th version of some Mendelssohn rather than the 500th version of whatever Chopin they wanted him to do again.  But….   I witnessed so much talent here.  And being older, I am hopeful that the young man will realize his power with every passing day, and demand not only Felix, but perhaps continue on his current path into the 20th century with the likes of Prokofiev.  (I hope neither he nor the Europeans change these performances due to the war, as some have done, in “freedom fries” fashion.  Good Russian people should not be vilified, but supported; supported in their own efforts to overthrow their despot.  Besides which … Prokofiev is amazing!)  I am hopeful in my lifetime I will be able to buy a recording of Lisiecki playing Ligeti.  (Hey!  That has a nice consonance ring to it!  Are you hearing me, Deutsche Grammophon?!)

All that said, when you see and hear him for yourself, it is apparent that Lisiecki is quite obviously his own person now.   Perhaps his sensibility truly is one similar to that found in the 19th century, and that’s what he’ll play the rest of his life.  He has described the joys of being a pianist due to the nearly-infinite quantity of literature available.  With hundreds of years to select from, one could easily spend one’s lifetime in just one century and still be as happy as a clam, still re-discover jewels and gems and pearls a-plenty.  So … you do you, Lisiecki.

SEATTLE

Lisiecki said, in the program for his night at Benaroya Hall, that he organized his Études and Nocturnes by a progression in keys, which is odd, given they initially progress to the next piece by moving a third down or a 5th up, but then after intermission mostly a 4th up with even some 2nds thrown in….  I’m sure the goal, like any composer doing some book of Preludes or something (or some rock album figuring out its ”track list”), was for a nice variety that would flow seamlessly.  Given the performer of another’s work does not compose the piece, I get the feeling pianists enjoy this curatorial sort of work, which considers the emotional ebbs and flows of an evening as carefully as a composer does within each piece.  It must be a creative and fun aspect of “their job”. 

Lisiecki wanted an evening that gave the impression of “poems in a book”, and I think he succeeded.  Although, perhaps more like “entries in a diary”, for me, given Chopin is so emotionally wrought that it feels almost too private and intense than the more-often artistic façade of a poem.  Which, of course, is why Chopin is to this day – without hyperbole — one of the greatest composers in all of human history, especially in regards to writing for the piano. 

To hear Nocturnes at night is dangerous.  They are so quiet and peaceful at times that if you didn’t get much sleep the night prior, or had too much booze before the show or during intermission, you might just be lulled to sleep.  (Don’t be that guy snoring at a performance!)  For myself, the Nocturnes instantly transport me to someone’s living room in Paris, with all hipsters quietly surrounding the piano like 19th century goth kids, as Chopin wows them with his virtuosity and sensitivity, somehow hypnotizing everyone into a calm and pensive night, altogether, often with that happy-sad sense of melancholy. 

Frédéric Chopin

Whenever Lisiecki hits the sweet spot, the tender moments, his body stiffens, and he sits straight up as if he were having tea with the Queen (which — holy shit — he actually did once?!).  If I were to interview the lad, I’d ask him if this posture does not somehow subconsciously help his performance with these delicate spots.  With the pianissimo.  Does it relax the arms, to really focus on the hands for those quietest moments, which are, after-all, the hardest to control and vary and play well?  Or does the posture somehow mentally transport him to a place where everything is dainty and refined, and so such feelings just naturally exit the hands due to this corporeal trick? I dunno, but he returns to that posture several times, and in DC as well, when proper delicacy is required. 

Performatively, I also like the way Lisiecki nods and bobs his head around while he’s playing.  Keeps things interesting for the spectator, expresses visually what is often aurally coming your way, as well.

The Études always seem as difficult to me as a Bach 5-voice fugue when I hear them, mixed in with virtuoso passages meant to wow and amaze (and terrify, if you are a performer, yourself).  Here, too, Lisiecki doesn’t disappoint.  For these pieces, when they really get rolling, his style is to stand slightly off the chair and literally lean over the keys, attacking them with downward thrusts of his arms, likely getting more force this way.  (Again, he does this several times in DC, as well.)  It’s not a personal little stool he’s on, and he’s not humming along with the music (as far as I can tell), but something about this performative technique was quirky. A technique that was odd, and might be frowned upon as something that might distract our attention, and thus avoided.  And it was with this impression — the feeling that the kid (er, young man) doesn’t seem to care what he looks like as long as he’s going about his job and business of playing this piece as well as he can, his way, even if it’s a little “weird” — that he reminded me at those moments of his fellow Canadian and genius, Glenn Gould. Quirky and unique and not giving a damn … and being really, really good.

All of these pieces are undoubtedly well-known to everyone, we’ve heard them a million times.  But if he is getting tired of these pieces, now that he has played them over and over (he says in an interview that he likes to practice as little as possible, just enough to be able to execute, but no more, so as to keep music as fresh as possible), it does not show itself.  The night was wonderful at expressing the famous composer’s works.

Lisiecki does have more rubato than I think I’ve heard on various recordings.  Perhaps it is his true personal feelings coming through, or perhaps it is that tendency for performers to want to make their unique mark on a piece that you otherwise cannot quite modify or control.  Or both.  But it was noticeable.  And it was fine.  It was beautiful.  Domo arigato.  Mr. Rubato.

The last piece in Seattle was the biggest crowd-pleaser, the Revolutionary Étude, and he performed it with great passion, ending the night with a standing ovation and a curtain call.  But no encore.  (Insert sad-face emoji here.)  Of course, the Revolutionary Étude is often other pianists’ encore, so … we’re good. 

DC

I wondered if, given my sense in Seattle that Lisiecki’s tendency was to dramatically vary his tempi, I wondered, would the orchestra and he stay together?  Would Conductor Thomas Wilkins keep them together, or would Mr. Lisiecki perhaps stray off into his own thoughts and tempi?  He exploited rubato in his solo parts, but yes, they seemed to stay together very well, otherwise.  At times, maybe, things seemed to get too fast?  And Conductor Wilkins would turn to Lisiecki with bigger gestures (hard to get a pianist’s attention as they are playing difficult passages), which seemed to settle things down.  If this was truly the case, it was hardly noticeable, given most of the time the piece seemed to flow as effortlessly and near-perfectly as any recording, with only a few wrong notes here and there.  But to be fair, whatever transpired between conductor and soloist, the music sounded great, and shortly after any look of consternation – as well as after each movement, during the pause – Wilkins never failed to turn to Lisiecki with a literal subtle wink of the left eye, communicating either “atta boy” or “damn, are we not knocking this out of the park, or what?!”

For not writing much music other than for the piano, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 sure does have a long orchestral opening – 3 to 4 minutes — before the piano rears its beautiful head. One almost forgets there’s a piano up there, at all, until that first E minor chord crashes on top of you, fortissimo, in your face.  Lisiecki almost seemed to slightly jump the gun with it, which I liked.  If one knows it’s coming, as the strings slowly fade away, the quicker that attack, the better the effect, I think.

There are then several minutes of more virtuoso passages, that were probably designed to showcase the young composer as he bid farewell to his Poland.  And they are great, with all of their cascading arpeggios and little waterfalls essentially based around the third interval, whether modified as a 6th or 10th.  (My own preference, of course, but … when his solo parts are over, especially the more extravagant show-offy ones, and the orchestra picks up the music again, I believe the jazz culture does it better.  We should be able to acknowledge and applaud sections by soloists who just completed an outstanding passage.  I have lost too many arguments to classical folks about this opinion to know that this behavior will never happen in classical music culture – or at least, if it did, that that person would be kicked out tout de suite if they ever acted on the impulse!)

But somewhere around the 8th minute or so of the 1st movement is when the piece gets its “dolce” back, becomes more lyrical, beautiful, “sublime” – all of the things that come to mind when one hears the word “Chopin”.  Of course, great composers have a mastery of all emotional expression, and Chopin is no different.  Just in this first movement, every expression seems represented at one time or another.  The first movement then ends as if Forman’s Salieri were with us, “end it with a bang, so they know it’s done”.  I would’ve preferred the “whimper” sort of ending, with tenderness, thank you T.S. Eliot.  Perhaps I am influenced this particular month by the current war?

But, of course, Chopin knows best.  A whimper wouldn’t have segued into nor contrasted with the 2nd movement nearly as well.  The second movement, the Romanze, is like a lullaby.  Chopin said it was dedicated to the tenderness one feels, being in a familiar place with 1000 sweet memories. Hearing this in DC, where I was born, and where I was visiting all of my old haunts, and knowing that Chopin had intended this for the movement, made a special impression on me.  Music is, of course, an abstract artform, but if we bring to it all of the contextual features, its history, and if the composer is a genius for whatever “programmatic” story he wants to tell, and we are still yet within their cultural milieu enough to overcome the passage of time or space, and understand the composer’s intended symbolism – music then can be moving and meaningful beyond just what sound frequencies are known to provoke in the deeply-rooted non-dominant hemispheric musical/emotional centers of our brains.  Music has the power to stir things in the consciousness – memories, images, feelings – that other artforms just cannot match.  Which is why it is so powerful and beloved, of course.

At some point, as he plays, Lisiecki’s hands seem really big to me, at least from the audience.  Like he’s a puppy and still growing, with giant paws.  (They are most definitely not Trump’s hands….)  This would seem to be physically perfect for the piano. I might ask how such a young man can possibly have and convey such a wide range of emotion, with relatively few experiences?  But then, Chopin WROTE the damn thing when he was just 20!  Which should make us sit down, take a breath, and realize … it is hopeless for us!  (Of course, Lisiecki first played the piece for that Warsaw festival when he was … what? … 14?!  ….  We are doomed.)

One of the more memorable performative gestures was a swooshing of Lisiecki’s trunk to the left, at the end of a solo section, almost flipping his short hair back, as if literally “throwing it back” to the conductor and orchestra.  I loved it.  (It was probably here that I wanted to applaud, like at a jazz show.)

Roger Daltrey as Liszt, from Lisztomania

The third movement is much more lively, filled with dances and grand-sounding marches, filled again with more of the ”look at me” virtuoso stuff one expected from a piano concerto back then, more arms than hands, swinging around both ends of the compass almost perfunctorily.  This isn’t what I come to Chopin for – I prefer the Nocturnes, for the sublime, which again Lisiecki did equally well in Seattle, of course.  But if you wants tha glitz – the concerto gives you the Liberace-schtick better than anyone, as well. (Except for maybe that true “Liberace of the Romantics”, Liszt.)  And if you wants bouncy-fun country dances, that’s in this 3rd movement in spades. 

Why do we perform and experience old works that have been recorded a hundred times?  Even if Lisiecki or any performer were the greatest of all time, no matter how they adjusted a work to suit their own expressive needs as an artist themselves, overall, mostly the same emotions and expressions are communicated if they’re following the composers wishes, i.e. notes and tempo and expressive markings. So, we’re here to experience, what?  Skill – “look what I can do?”  Look, human beings still got it, in 2022?  We’re still cultured? We care about our history? Is it so we can experience the work together, as a community?  Is it nostalgia, and thus no wonder classical music gets the bad rap for being the artform for the older and more conservative audience?  Obviously, it is probably all these things and much more. (And there are undoubtedly several PhD theses on the topic from musicologists, so I’ll stop now!).

They might be marketing Lisiecki as the master of Chopin because he’s Polish, or the next Glenn Gould, or whatever.  But, hearing him in interviews, and reading about the guy, I’m not sure Lisiecki is that Machiavellian.  My guess is it is more the agents or the companies that want to sell him.  And you know what?  Cynicism aside, more power to them, given how tiny and fragile our classical music world is, at least in America.  Whatever works – more power to you.  Go out there and get more people coming back to the symphony halls, you Madison Avenue whiz-kids!  Get busy!  And I am most pleased to announce that whatever the hype, when you see and hear the fellow, you won’t be disappointed.  He is professional, embodies the music, performs it as well as anyone.  So, do – do – do, do – do believe the hype.

(Be careful though, Lisiecki!  The lady next to me was disappointed that, after your three curtain calls, you did not give us an encore.  “I saw Lang Lang here at the Kennedy Center, and he came out and gave us an encore….”  It’s a tough business, man!  Find yourself some of those Yuja Wang show-stoppers!  In DC, the civil servants are restless!) 

As in Seattle, he has played this concerto so many times, so he risks “being a caricature of himself”, as he has worried publicly.  That he might, himself, become bored with a work, and thus play it without feeling.  “Calling it in.”  If he was, we didn’t get that sense.  The performance was excellent.  He seems to play the Romantics very well.  I do think his own soul might just be that schmalzy? 

But not to be flippant — he also does the work.  He’s professional.  He hits the notes, conveys the emotions, expertly varies the tempo and dynamics (including those pp moments, in a sense, the most difficult sections) in a confident and – yes – already very “experienced” manner (at 26!).  Have no fear — you pays your money, you will gets your product.  Close your eyes, and the performance is as good as any recording that needed 30 takes.  And it is live, and in front of you, surrounded by your community, sharing in the sublime.  These were good nights.  Lisiecki deserves the title of “professional”.

NSO

Let’s give the National Symphony Orchestra their due for the works they did the rest of their night.

They were led this St. Patrick’s Day by the seemingly-pleasant-but-strict, Conductor Thomas Wilkins, who comes out punctually (I was warned by the event staff to get to my seat – they start right on time!).  He makes little fanfare, climbs the podium, and jumps right into the music.  He conducts with very small gestures, more subtle ticks of the baton, only slightly leaning in here or there to various sections of the orchestra.  (To my joy and surprise, at the end of the evening, this stern-seeming man had a giant boyish smile on his face and even fist-bumped people in the first row – so … you know what they say about the covers of books….)

Marine helicopters roaring by Kennedy Center patio, March 17.

People are posting on social media about various symphonies around the world opening with the Ukrainian national anthem.  Here, in DC, while the war drums are pounding loudly, with military helicopters literally freaking me out as they roared over the Kennedy Center’s patio … no such thing.  The night began with a somewhat cheesy Romantic-era piece, Franz von Suppé’s Die schöne Galathée, the Overture.  Suppé was forced to compete with Offenbach and his Can Can, and the opera buffa sensibility shined.  It starts ceremonial/militaristic, pomp-and-circumstance-like, like a John Philip Sousa passage (I guess apropos for a National Orchestra), and definitely wakes you up to start the night.  There are sweet moments, as well, not to mention some very Austrian um-pah-pah’s here and there, so overall, it was a fine divertissement.

The second half of the night in DC, after the concerto and intermission, featured the 20th century German composer, Paul Hindemith, and his Mathis der Maler Symphony.  (On March 17, tonight was nothing but Austrian and Polish and German? So, to honor the day on my own, I felt obliged to have an Irish whiskey at intermission….)  (And no, I wasn’t the guy snoring!)  Hindemith was an alternative to the Stravinsky version of a neoclassicist, and Baroque forms sneak in here and there, but he was still open and searching, promoting the music of Webern and Schoenberg when he led festivals in the 1920s. 

Conductor Wilkins and the National Symphony Orchestra, March 17

The symphony is based on his opera of the same name, about a painter living in a time of warfare between Catholic and Lutheran, and what it meant to be an artist making sense of his profession in a time of conflict, which Hindemith himself was doing in the 1930’s, with the Nazis on the rise, and he, negotiating how far he could go with his art, while keeping a careful eye on whether or not the racist pieces of shit might actually continue to rise in power, especially keeping in mind his wife was Jewish….  (Artists in Russia who have recently fled to Finland and Armenia, or artists in America in the age of Trump, couldn’t possibly relate to such a theme, could they?!) Hindemith himself had to flee Germany in 1938, to Switzerland.  Perhaps the current global nationalist creepiness is why the artists of the NSO chose to perform this piece…?

This piece opens with what a modern audience might recognize coincidentally as Danny Elfman’s Batman theme (of course that would be the other way around!), but in this case quickly evolves into a cheerful three angels German folk music theme (that actually comes near the end of the associated opera), and from there, a bantering off and on of those angels with atypical tonal themes, starting with flutes, bouncing around the sections of the orchestra for most of the movement, at one point with fugal-like elements in the strings about halfway through.  The third movement has a lot of drums in the beginning, and lots of colors at the end, until the finale, which sounds to me like it was ripped right out of Pictures at an Exhibition. I wasn’t as familiar with this work, and am thankful to the NSO’s musicians and Conductor Wilkins, for this great performance and well-done, enjoyable evening, overall.

I’ll say this about these two nights.  Between Washington State and Washington DC, there is a continent.  The former has a season-ticket-holding crowd that attends in sweaters and jeans (“come as you are”…), while the Kennedy Center crowd was much more dressy, and much older, in general, as well, as if JFK himself might be in the upper balcony tonight.  But at the end of both nights, there was warm and sincere applause, a shared experience of a young, living performer who reincarnated the ghost of Chopin for us, as he seems to be doing throughout the world.  As a borderline Gen Z’er, this is Lisiecki’s time, and there is now no doubt that Chopin, for whatever reason – whether marketing or talent or ancestry or otherwise – has become his responsibility.  He owns Chopin.  … And frankly, that’s a big fucking terrifying responsibility, so I really feel for this guy.  But … he’s meeting the moment.  He’s doing it really well, and we should be thankful we have moments like the ones he gave us these two nights.  I truly believe that all of the Northwest Bro-mazons, and all of the DeCeit policy-wonks, the folks on both coasts, were, for these two nights anyway, amazed and transported by a Lisiecki séance.

Copyright 3-18-2022, S.E. Barcus

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Jan Lisiecki, A Tale of Two Washingtons