Music and Its Role in Society: A Conversation with Jan Lisiecki

Photo courtesy of Holger Hage


This week, WHRB Classical Member Karissa Huang spoke on the phone with pianist Jan Lisiecki. Lisiecki is an internationally renowned, Canadian-born, Polish pianist. Lisiecki is known for his performances of Chopin, specifically the Chopin concerti, which he will be performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra next weekend. We spoke to him about his interpretations of Chopin, his views about sending messages through music, his upcoming concert in Boston and more. Read ahead for a preview or listen to the full interview above.

Huang: You are playing Chopin 1 with the BSO next week; what prior performances and recordings of this piece are your favorite and what new things do you think you can bring to this piece?

Lisiecki: It’s a work that I’ve lived with for a very, very long time. I am only 23 so a very long time in my case is ten years but that’s a large portion of my life and I’ve played it well over 100 times with many orchestras around the world so to me this piece is really my own and for that reason saying right now which recordings I really love of it is fairly challenging because I have in my mind always my own so whenever you’re listening to someone else’s recording you’re always comparing it. But I remember from when I was a child I would enjoy listening to Krystian Zimmerman’s recording of it and Martha Argerich’s recording of it and all kinds of different perspectives on this very famous and renowned piece of the piano repertoire.

Huang: Since Chopin was a Polish composer do you feel that you use your Polish background to come to terms with or interpret the music?

Lisiecki: It’s very challenging to answer that question because I am born Canadian and I’ve lived here all my life. Of course, my roots my heritage, and in many ways my culture is all Polish. I do speak the language, I do even hold a Polish passport but being born in a different country and being raised there means that you’re very different as a person and it doesn’t really translate into music necessarily. The recordings that I just mentioned a second ago that are my favorite, one of them is yes by a Polish person, Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, the other one is by somebody who doesn’t have anything to do with Poland. That’s the power of music, it’s incredibly international and it doesn’t have these barriers that you have to understand a certain culture or understand a nation or a mentality or the psyche to actually play well and I don’t think it really changes your interpretation that much. Of course, your performance is always shaped by your life and what you’ve experienced. In that way, being Polish and having been there many times has some influence on how I play, but beyond that I don’t think it materially and fundamentally changes how I play Chopin’s music.

Huang: Somewhat along those lines, I know there is a lot of controversy surrounding whether to consider Chopin’s biography in crafting an interpretation, is that something you believe in?

Lisiecki: I think it’s always important, at least on a personal level, to understand basics of a composer’s life. Know a little bit about how they lived, when they lived, what they were experiencing around them and what they were writing about. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that music was often an escape for these composers. It wasn’t only a way for them to express their current state of mind, their current emotions: their pain, their suffering, their joy. It was often completely separated from what they were going through biographically. For that reason, of course it’s important to understand, but at the same time it is our responsibility to continually reshape the music, to reinterpret it, to give it something new. Why would audiences be coming to hear something that has been around for 200 years if we simply base it on the biographical facts and the historical practices and we play completely accurately. Well, somebody else has already played it accurately. That’s the continual evolution of music and I believe why we continue to go to classical music concerts.

Huang: Taking a little bit of a different path now, in America we are going through some difficult times socially and politically. What responsibility do you think musicians have in society right now and do you think music has a political responsibility in current times or when Chopin was writing his pieces? And are there specific pieces that come to mind when talking about sending messages to audiences in general?

Lisiecki: One thing that is important to note today in the landscape that we live in is that people are incredibly divided. And I think music has the power, the ability, to unite, to bring people together. For that reason, I think music should stay apolitical; at least, I think musicians should. Expressing active and loud political agendas is abusing the power that they have, that was given to them, through music, which is something so beautiful and so surreal and has such more important powers than pushing a political agenda. So, no matter what your beliefs are, no matter what your views are, a concert hall is a place where that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make any difference and that’s a place where we can all suddenly come together again, without fighting, without bickering, without the unpleasantness of real life and I think it’s also an incredible escape. We are always bombarded with information, something that’s truer today than ever before, where you can’t really get away from these things that are happening, some of them good of course, but a lot of them bad and the concert hall is a reprieve from that. It’s a place where you enter and suddenly the outside world dissipates, it holds so much power, this music that we interpret, that if it’s a great concert, I hope that the audience will forget what is going on outside and that I think is the responsibility of a musician. Of course, in Chopin’s time, Chopin did make political statements with his music, but it was rather different. Poland was, at the time, occupied by other powers, it didn’t exist as a country. Chopin’s political statements were not so much on the preference of how to guide the country, but to actually have the country exist period. And for that it was very nationalistic political agenda in Chopin’s case.

Karissa Huang is a ­­­producer for WHRB Classical. You can hear Jan Lisiecki’s performance of Chopin’s first concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra from April 19th through April 21st.

Tickets can be purchased here: