Jan Lisiecki holds the final note of a Chopin nocturne while performing with the Okanagan Symphony at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Sunday

Classical Notes: Prodigy pianist Jan Lisiecki lands in Vernon with finesse

Okanagan Symphony's Rosemary Thomson reunites with 18-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki for Poised in Flight at Vernon Performing Arts Centre.

On Sunday at the Performing Arts Centre, Rosemary Thomson (conductor and musical director of Okanagan Symphony) reunited with a performer who’s become a legend in his own lifetime.

At nine years of age, Jan Lisiecki (with Thomson conducting) had played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 13 with the Calgary Philharmonic.

Sunday’s masterworks concert, Poised for Flight, showcased young composers and performers “those with wisdom beyond their years,” and it was a no-brainer to feature Lisiecki at the ripe, old age of 18.

Introducing the concert was assistant concertmaster Susan Letourneau. When at music college, majoring in performance, she’d asked co-student Michael Oesterle (majoring in composition) to write a violin piece for her.

Now, eight years later, we heard his 2011 composition, short symphony, The Sparrow’s Ledger, for which he’d been inspired by Aaron Copland’s short symphony.

In three movements, it opened with beautiful slow chords in the strings, introducing the woodwinds, developing briskly with well separated orchestral colours.

A thoughtful second movement, certainly evocative of nature, bridged to the third, described in the score as “strolling.”

It was fresh, laid back, with added horns and timpani, moving along with that strolling rhythm. It was commissioned by the CBC for the National Broadcast Orchestra, and premiered in Vancouver.

The concert also included George Bizet’s Symphony in C, an astonishing achievement by a young composer.

Started just after turning 17, and finished a month later, Bizet wrote it while studying at the Paris Conservatoire under composer Charles Gounod.  Probably done as a student assignment, Bizet showed no interest in having it performed or published.

It was never played in his lifetime. It remained unknown till its first performance in 1935, and was immediately hailed as a youthful masterpiece on par with Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written at about the same age), quickly becoming part of the standard Romantic repertoire.

That the symphony was never mentioned even in Bizet’s correspondence caused speculation about his motive for burying the piece. Because he’d been hired to transcribe Gounod’s music, familiarity with his mentor’s work might have resulted in resemblances between Gounod’s symphony and his own.

However, critics view Bizet’s as the better composition. Once discovered, his symphony far outshone Gounod’s piece, both in terms of performance and numbers of recordings.

Certainly Sunday’s performance was vigorous and totally engaging.

The highlight of the evening was 18-year-old Polish-Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9.

He took the first movement at a brisk pace, fully in control, perhaps even held back in the early sections. The final cadenza (solo section), alternating between drama and serenity, was both moving and accomplished.

His maturity was especially evident in these cadenzas, and this was equally true with his rendering of a Chopin nocturne (unexpectedly played as an encore.) Here, a less experienced pianist might have played too fast. As James Jolly wrote for The Gramophone: “Lisiecki may still be in his teens but his musical wisdom belies his youth. His is a gift too rare to be squandered.”

He’s played in countries too numerous to mention. He’s performed with Yo-Yo Ma and Pinchas Zukerman, and at 14 was featured in CBC’s documentary, The Reluctant Prodigy.

An exclusive recording agreement with the Deutsche Gramophon “yellow” label followed and, on his school board’s recommendation, he was advanced four grades to graduate from high school.

Last year, he made his BBC Prom debut, and received the Leonard Bernstein Award. And the coming season includes his debut with La Scala in Milan, plus his official debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, when he’ll perform three concertos in a single week.

— Jim Elderton is a Vernon-based filmmaker and freelance writer who reviews the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra concert series for The Morning Star,


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