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Gifted teen has sensitivity beyond his years

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/1/2011 (3363 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jan Lisiecki has missed an awful lot of school in the past few years.

The Calgary-born 15-year-old doesn't like to blow his own horn, so many of his classmates have no idea he's an acclaimed piano prodigy who has performed at Carnegie Hall and shared stages with Yo-Yo Ma and Pinchas Zukerman.

Pianist Jan Lisiecki, 15, has performed at Carnegie Hall.

SUPPLIED PHOTO

Pianist Jan Lisiecki, 15, has performed at Carnegie Hall.

"I think most kids think I'm horribly sick or something," he jokes by phone from his Calgary home.

But after today, Lisiecki's cover may be blown, because he's disappearing for good. Arrangements have been made for the gifted student, who skipped several grades, to write his supervised Grade 12 English exam in Winnipeg this morning.

That's his final requirement for completing high school. Tonight, the tall, self-possessed teen — who hates the term "prodigy" — takes the stage with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra to perform Chopin's Concerto No. 1 in E Minor (the program also includes the MCO playing Kernis and Elgar works). It's Lisiecki's first visit here, and the concert is sold out.

Zukerman, a world-renowned conductor, said in a 2009 CBC documentary about Lisiecki that talent of his magnitude comes along only once in two or three generations.

James Ehnes, the Manitoban virtuoso who is himself a former prodigy, is one of the artists who recommended the multi-award-winning keyboard phenomenon to the MCO.

By all reports, Lisiecki is a lot like Ehnes: remarkably grounded and modest, with a mature ability to handle all the attention and pressure.

"It's an abnormal lifestyle," admits the 15-year-old, who likes jazz and Pink Floyd as well as the classics. "But my parents haven't pushed me.... They've always emphasized how lucky I am. Some people do things because they'd like to find fame or money.... I've always just purely loved it."

Playing big, complex piano works like tonight's 42-minute concerto takes physical power. When it's mentioned that Lisiecki's hands may not have reached their adult size, he says, "I hope they have, because they're huge... I barely can fit in any mittens now."

What does he do to get mentally prepared?

"I like sleeping before I go onstage," he says. "Then it's like the start of a new day. If I take an hour nap, it helps me completely zone out the world."

Each time he performs — from memory — the whole point, he says, is to make discoveries in the moment. "You're manipulating the music as it comes out. As you're playing, you think, 'This is a new idea,' or 'Wow, that's interesting.'

"It never comes out the same, and I would be very disappointed if it did. You want to find something that's beautiful that you haven't found before."

Lisiecki, who speaks with a slight European inflection, is the only child of Polish immigrants who are both horticulturalists. No one in the family even plays an instrument, but his maternal grandmother is a mathematician, and some people see a link between her gifts and his.

When he was five, a teacher at school suggested that his parents start him on an instrument, so they borrowed a piano. He never looked back, making his orchestral debut at age nine.

Praised not just for dazzling technique, but for poetic interpretation that seems far beyond his life experience, he has performed throughout Canada and in about 12 other countries. He's away from home more than 50 per cent of the time. His mother/agent travels with him. Starting in the fall, he'll be studying on scholarship at Toronto's Glenn Gould School.

It's safe to assume that the next time Lisiecki performs here, he'll be an even bigger sensation. About three months ago, he was signed to an exclusive five-CD contract by the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. He hopes his first disc will be released by the end of 2011.

"I'm meeting with (superstar pianist-conductor) Maestro Daniel Barenboim in Berlin on Jan. 24," he says. "He's one of the conductors they've proposed, which is very exciting.... I hope our ideas will be compatible. Then we'll decide on the orchestra and what to record."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

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