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Teenage pianist stays grounded despite fame

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Jan Lisiecki is not your average 18-year-old by any stretch of the imagination.

The phenomenally talented pianist from Calgary plays close to 100 concerts a year worldwide and is a recording artist for the renowned Deutsche Grammophon label. Lisiecki is supremely musical and wows audiences with his technical prowess, fresh interpretation and youthful charm.

He has received countless awards, including, most recently, the Leonard Bernstein Award of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, where two of Bernstein's children actually presented the award.

Lisiecki will be in Winnipeg on Sept. 11 to perform Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16 with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. He was last here with the MCO in 2011.

It is not just his prodigious accomplishments that make this teenager special. I spoke with him on the phone from his Calgary home and was immediately taken with his self-assuredness, professionalism and intelligence. Best of all, he enjoys and appreciates every minute of his musical career.

"I never dreamed of becoming a musician," he said. "I wanted to be a doctor or a mathematician, but it came upon me naturally and grew gradually. And I love everything about it -- the travel, performing -- I couldn't imagine a better life at 18."

"I love math, but it's black and white. In music, there are millions of colours. It's wonderful. It gives you a different perspective on life."

Lisiecki looks forward to working with the MCO, which is considerably smaller than a standard symphony orchestra. "It's more fun, personal. You can speak with the musicians and get to know people. You can communicate on a different level."

He also enjoys the atmosphere of the smaller venue, Westminster United Church. "It is more intimate, with the orchestra and the audience -- you have closer relations. It works really well for lots of music and many composers wrote music to be played in small salons. But big halls are fun, too and are grander," he hastened to add.

Lisiecki even admitted to testing out the seats in halls to experience what the audience does while they listen.

Many of Lisiecki's concerts are sellouts and this one is getting national attention -- CBC recently picked it as No. 11 in its list of most outstanding orchestral concerts for the 2013-14 season.

With so much success already under his belt, it's inspiring to know Lisiecki continues to hone his craft. He is pursuing his bachelor of music at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto under the tutelage of Marc Durand. Asked how much time he can devote to his studies with his hectic performance and travel schedule, Lisiecki was philosophical: "As much as any arts students. I find the time and squeeze it all in. I like it."

Whenever he has a three-day stretch without a performance or rehearsal, he heads back home to Calgary. "Sometimes not just the mind, but the body needs a break, and home is always where I can get this," he said.

His mother travels with him and his father often joins them for concerts. "If we're in one place for a while... in a beautiful city for a few performances, we go as a family."

Plus, the well-spoken pianist has friends all over the world. "I get along with friends of all ages. Wherever I travel there are people I know and enjoy being with."

He especially enjoyed a trip to Inuvik last year. A piano was shipped there expressly for his performance and the audience, for whom concerts are a rarity, was very welcoming.

"They appreciated the performance in a different way," Lisiecki said. "I'd like to do more playing in the Canadian North, in Nunavut and Yukon."

Always the diplomat, Lisiecki demurred when asked about influential teachers or musicians.

"I've been playing with orchestras since I was 10. I enjoyed performing with many orchestras and with many conductors. I get my greatest inspiration through playing and from the individual orchestra musicians," he said.

Lisiecki will speak about the Grieg concerto with MCO conductor Anne Manson on Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at McNally Robinson.

Tickets for Wednesday's concert are $28 for adults, $26 for seniors and $8 for students at McNally Robinson, the West End Cultural Centre, Organic Planet and MCO's Ticketline, 204-783-7377.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 G10

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