Lisiecki’s Chopin Masterclass at the Symphony Center

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It seems counter-intuitive to hold a solo piano recital in an orchestra hall. There is something distinctly unbalanced about the fact that the more than 1,000 patrons in the Symphony Center Orchestra Hall are focused on an area of ​​the stage no larger than 50 square feet. In this sense, perhaps Jan Lisiecki’s performance on January 30 of Op. 10 etudes and various nocturnes by the Franco-Polish romantic composer Frédéric Chopin had more in common with a stage of the tour of a pop singer’s album than with a traditional classical concert. Except, however, that there is no first part, no accompanying orchestra, no words of explanation provided by the artist: just man and machine, pianist and instrument, performer and composer.

Lisiecki, a Canadian pianist of Polish origin, is a much sought-after virtuoso. As a teenager, Lisiecki became famous for his interpretations of Chopin’s concertos, cementing his reputation for sensitive and nuanced interpretations in the years that followed. These qualities were evident when Lisiecki, now 26, opened the concert with Chopin’s Etude No. 1 in C major. The cascade descents in the right hand inspired the nickname “Cascade” for the study, although the most remarkable thing about Lisiecki’s performance was how he slowed this roaring stunt to a whisper at the end.

The subdued mood lingered when Lisiecki began the program’s first nocturne, Chopin’s posthumous nocturne in C minor. Published in 1938, 89 years after Chopin’s death, the nocturne in C minor resembles a black sheep: its melody recalls the Jewish poem “Hatikvah”, since adapted as Israel’s national anthem, but the transparent texture evokes classical master Wolfgang Amadeus. Mozart, one of Chopin’s greatest musical influences. Although the nocturne is technically simple, Lisiecki demonstrated that masterful execution requires more than just precise fingers. His use of the damper pedal on the left side of the piano muffled the sound in solemn passages, and in the more upbeat A-flat major section, Lisiecki turned his head skyward, as if seeing a ray of light. sun above.

One of Lisiecki’s characteristics as a performer is the way he moves his body. For the program’s second etude – a wild and energetic centerpiece with striking similarities to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous “Flight of the Bumblebee” – Lisiecki’s tousled blonde hair bounced along the chromatic scales, adding to the sense of confusion and disorientation of the room. But this confusion is finely mastered, like much of what Lisiecki plays. In the Nocturne in E major, Op. 62, No. 2, he projected the melody in the minor key so clearly that the chords below barely distracted from the theme. That said, its emphasis on melody did sometimes distract from plot moments. At some point in the middle of the piece, Chopin moves from standard A minor harmonies to the almost dystopian alternation of German sixths and diminished sevenths, two of the most complex chords in Chopin’s harmonic arsenal. While I expected Lisiecki to wait before the mood shift, he instead dove into it, spoiling what could have been a big surprise moment for the listener.

The third work of Op. 10, nicknamed “Tristesse” (“Sadness”), is perhaps the most famous and certainly one of his finest studies of Chopin. Lisiecki was careful to preserve the poignant lyricism of the study even with his most daring artistic choices – a more bouncy and intense, almost anguished left hand, striking at the jarring climax, as if a ship were sailing on a stormy sea. On the return of the first theme, when Chopin shifted from sunnier major chords to a sadder minor C sharp, Lisiecki took longer to transition the fall from hope to sorrow. He finished the piece with the audience spellbound, then adjusted his bench, paused for a moment and launched into the tumultuous Etude Op. 10, No. 4, this time bewitching with the immense clarity of its sixteenth notes.

It seems insincere to describe Chopin’s music in terms of colorful metaphors, but a truly exceptional pianist can indeed use the blacks and whites of the keys to paint a multicolored three-dimensional picture. Listening to Lisiecki play Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. 27, n° 1, it is difficult not to think of the images: the melody of the right hand at the beginning like ripples on a lake, the arpeggios of the left hand after the with forza (forcefully) the soaring octaves of the section like evergreens emerging from the morning mist, the languid plagal cadence at the conclusion like a prayer echoing in a cavernous sanctuary. Although the nocturnes by definition lend themselves to darker colors – the Latin root nocturnal connotes the night – there is a certain ethereal quality to Lisiecki’s interpretations. As he plays Op. 27, n° 2, he is always careful during the slower passages to move as few muscles as possible; it makes brief flourishes of excitement even more vivid, even more startling to the listener. Pieces like op. 10, No. 5, the particularly cheerful “Black Key Étude” is perhaps the best depiction of Lisiecki the showman, but the nocturnes are where Lisiecki the artist is most at home.

Although I extol the virtues of his artistic talent, Lisiecki is not perfect. The “Black Key Etude” was a bit sloppy, and the individual notes were hard to discern due to the frantic tempo at which Lisiecki took it. It followed the research and mysterious Op. 10, No. 6, study with the famous Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9, No. 2, and it seemed that Lisiecki knew the piece was somewhat cliché: its tempo was faster and its touch sharper than those of many other interpretations. But perhaps he was simply saving his energy for the Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1, which closed the first half of the concert. It begins and ends with the same melody – the first time anguished but hopeful, the second time anguished and hopeless – and Lisiecki has taken great care to differentiate between the two. I had to put down my pen and marvel as it approached the conclusion, a tour de force of technical difficulty. There were errors, yes, but they were explained and excused by the almost primitive energy with which he threw himself on the keyboard.

In his keyboard gestures, whether he breathes at the end of a phrase or shakes his head as he performs a demanding run, Lisiecki injects life into the pieces of a composer who is, to put it bluntly, quite dead. Classical music, as a genre, is often caricatured either as soft, unassuming lullabies or stuffy, pretentious symphonies, and the lack of tangible words and narratives in instrumental classical music – the majority of the production of Chopin – can make it difficult for the layman to understand. the complexity of writing. A truly great performer can illustrate these complexities to both trained and untrained listeners, and Lisiecki clearly succeeded in this regard: the applause started while her hands were still suspended in the air. Words like “epic,” “incredible,” and “phenomenal” echoed throughout the hall at intermission.

The second half of the concert felt very much like the first, and Lisiecki’s evocative yet controlled renditions continued to enchant audiences. In the Nocturne in G minor, Op. 15, No. 3, Lisiecki balanced the autumnal colors with a mournful melody that evoked “March” from the collection of Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky Seasons before pivoting to the more technical Op. 10, no. 7, study. In Op. 15, No. 1, Lisiecki handled the rubato while seamlessly integrating the lively ornaments into the relaxed melody. In Op. 10, No. 8, affectionately dubbed the “Sunshine” etude, Lisiecki rose from the bench during some of the most intense passages; in Op. 10, No. 9, he averted his eyes from the keyboard at equally difficult times in a display of bravery. Lisiecki’s confidence is clear, though it usually shines through in subtle ways: In the Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1, he adopts a broad posture as the melody expands, then straddles the line between sound and silence in the triple pianissimo passage, then plays the forzando chord a few bars later with just enough force to cut through the arpeggio. accompaniment without obscuring it, choices that require the assurance that everything will go as planned.

Lisiecki, 26, is at about the same stage in life as Chopin when he first wrote the music for the program. Chopin died of tuberculosis in 1849 at the age of 39, so most of his work dates from his youth or early middle age. The beauty and harmonic depth of Chopin’s work, especially in early pieces like Op. 9 nocturnes and op. 10 studies, belies his youth, just as Lisiecki’s meditative interpretations might be more characteristic of a pianist decades older. Characteristics of youth also include pure, unfettered emotions like the cheerfulness present in Chopin’s Etude in A flat major, Op. 10, No. 10. Lisiecki is not immune to his own youth: his initial rhythm for this etude was unsustainable, and his second enunciation of the melody was noticeably slower. When it was over, he barely waited before starting Op Nocturne. 32, n°2, in the same tone, anxious to move the program forward.

What Lisiecki does unquestionably well, however, is leave her mark on the music. As evidenced by his delicate voice of rolled chords in Etude Op. 10, No. 11, every layer of his playing is carefully considered, every point of accent deliberately executed. In the middle section of the posthumous nocturne in C sharp minor, Lisiecki even deviated from the instructions of Chopin and his publishers. The music states that the second statement of the melody, in F sharp minor, should be played sotto voce, or “under the voice”, but Lisiecki instead chose to play it louder and with more implication than he did the first statement in A major. Another departure came in the finale, Chopin’s uplifting ‘Revolutionary Etude’ in C minor, which in Lisiecki’s hands lacked the boldness and unbridled anger that characterizes many of his performances. It might have evoked a diplomatic conflict rather than the big bloody battles that inspired the study, but it was still intense enough to sate the audience, earning it a deserved standing ovation. Lisiecki returned to the stage one last time for an encore in the form of Nocturne Op. 16, No. 4, by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, late 19th century composer, noted publisher of Chopin’s work and briefly Prime Minister Polish after World War I.

For the first half of the concert, a boy no older than 10 sat at the edge of my row, watching Lisiecki’s every move. The significance of all of Lisiecki’s artistic gestures might not have been apparent to me at that age, but the understanding that he had done something great would have been very clear. It’s magical to see a young star like Lisiecki etch his legacy for all to see. To a music historian, he could be considered the heir apparent to a long line of Polish virtuosos and renowned interpreters of Chopin, including Arthur Rubinstein, Krystian Zimerman and Rafał Blechacz; but for mainstream audiences, he’s an artist who keeps classical music fresh and accessible – the kind of performer who keeps audiences coming back for more recitals.

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