Selected Featured Interviews
Interviewed by Ms Fran Wilson
Fran Wilson (FW): Who or what inspired you to take up piano and pursue a career in music?
Ji Liu (JL): It was my parents who encouraged me to play the piano when I was a kid. Although they were not professional musicians, they had a great passion for classical music since their youth – my father can play the trumpet, and my mother is an amateur violinist and guitarist. Therefore, my relationship with the instrument started as early as I was about to walk and speak. As things developed naturally, I was quite successful in several local and national piano competitions, but my parents never forced me to pursue an early career as a “prodigy”. On the contrary, they encouraged me to explore other interests in arts, literature, maths, astrology, history, etc. So, although I was clear with myself that I would work in creative environments, I didn’t particularly expect to be a professional musician until the age of 13. At that time, I took part in an international piano competition (my very first international piano competition) in New York City. I won the first prize as well as several recital engagements in the USA including a debut at Carnegie Hall in New York. It was my first time touring overseas, too, so the whole experience opened up my eyes and my mind. Of course, I was quite nervous before my Carnegie Hall debut with repertoire ranging from Liszt’s La Campanella to Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, etc., but thankfully I was well prepared and the resonances from both the audience and the media were very encouraging. Interestingly, I haven’t really encountered any more stage fright since then and I have felt quite natural performing on stage ever since, so I suppose it was truly the turning point in my early musical life.
FW: Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
JL: Many great people have lightened my musical life, and many critical turning points have shaped my career. First of all, I was fortunate enough to have studied with some of the most renowned piano professors I could ever have dreamed to study with, such as Christopher Elton who first discovered me playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations in Germany in 2006. Thereafter I spent the most crucial, fruitful and fascinating years of my undergraduate and postgraduate study with him at the Royal Academy of Music in London, with the generous support from foundations and individuals including the Tabor Foundation, the David Cohen Trust, Sir. David Tang and the Hattori Foundation, to name but a few. Also, I studied with Bashkirov in Madrid before my move to London. I was among his youngest students at that time and his rigorous teaching and the Russian School heritage built a strong foundation for my profound love of Russian repertoire and beyond. Of course, I am ever grateful to my professors in China, where my fingers and technique were trained professionally and solidly at a young age which allowed me to develop my musical understanding and horizons to the next levels during those early years. Also, my fruitful collaboration with Classic FM and the mentorship I have received from various musicians and organisations since my graduation together with my part-time PhD project at King’s College London have all helped to further nurture my playing and my perspective to music-making to an even more comprehensive degree.
FW: What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
JL: As a performer, I profoundly believe that it is the musician’s excellent playing (to play the right repertoire in the right way at the right time) that makes the musician’s career. So, I see challenges through the music and I set new goals in the ways I programme my concerts and how I play those programmes. One interesting fact about the eternal nature of classical music is the countless possibilities for performing one single piece if one can be creative and humble enough. It is important to have the confidence and the ability to express oneself openly and sincerely through music which is, in itself, a big challenge. Also, musicians are human beings like everyone else and we have to deal with everyday issues such as coping with jet-lag during our international tours and to deal with stress, etc. So, to think about music and beyond, to keep the awareness of listening, to have the patience of managing silence and to have the courage to say no sometimes are all important to me.
FW: Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
JL: Having just answered the topic about “challenge”, this is indeed a challenging question! Thinking about the most recent one, if I were allowed, I would put my new album “Fire and Water” in the list. In the preparation of this album, I was drawing the Chinese philosophical idea of “Wu Xing” to the programme, showcasing piano music written around the transition between the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, such as Scriabin’s 2nd Piano Sonata, Debussy’s Preludes and Stravinsky/Agosti’s Firebird Suite. It is a project that I have been working on over the past year and it well represents my artistic and musical aesthetic in many ways. Regarding some notable performances, many other facts than the playing itself could add extra excitement, as I recall. For example, one of my most memorable recitals was at the Bristol Proms where the concert was staged by theatre director Tom Morris and programmed with John Cage’s 4:33 and Bach’s Goldberg Variations together. So, I am still proud of presenting the Goldbergs in such radical and controversial way yet of staging it convincingly. Also, I played one of Schubert’s rarely performed but utterly beautiful sonatas D.571 (unfinished) together with piano works by Rzewski and Scriabin at some of my recitals, including the recent one at the Verbier Festival last year. The process of discovering and re-discovering unusual pieces through creative programming is something that I find extremely meaningful and something which helps me communicate with an audience. My recent debut with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall and giving the world-premiere of Einaudi’s Piano Concerto with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic also always make me smile when I think about them, too.
FW: Which particular works do you think you play best?
JL: I don’t really pigeonhole myself to one particular genre or one type of work – and I am always curious and seek out new repertoire to learn. However, from what I have experienced over recent years and looking to the future from an objective perspective, I would very much like to explore more works in which I could further enhance my creativity in programming and the way I present them in live performances. The direction of this journey would start with the work of composers from the French Baroque such as Rameau and Couperin, as well as works by my musical hero, Schubert, through the reflection of more impressionism to the modern music of our time.
FW: How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
JL: No, I don’t throw the dice and decide… Balance, creativity, unity and uniqueness are always the keywords when talking about repertoire. I think one has to make things clear in the mind between dream and reality, creativity and practicality. I am quite down to earth and honest with what my current musical strengths are as well as where my practical limits are each season, so the choice of the repertoire is a combination of my almost scientific and cool-minded analysis and my long-term artistic vision and passion.
FW: Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
JL: I think the great performance makes the perfect concert venue. The participation of the audience also makes certain vibration and atmosphere in the hall which could turn around the acoustic completely. Some places might suit particular repertoires better than the others. So, I think the majority of my own thoughts on concert venues is very subjective. Over these past years though, I have thoroughly enjoyed playing not only in the big halls such as the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall in which I actually enjoy the acoustic by performing the Goldbergs as well as Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto, but also in some more intimate spaces around the country including some exquisite churches and concert society venues. Wigmore Hall falls perfectly into this category where it seems that it would be hard for anyone not to sound beautiful!
FW: Who are your favourite musicians?
JL: I could possibly still be answering this questions in several days! Overall, the musicians and the recordings of the first decades of the 20th century always give me a lot of pleasure, both to listen to them and to learn from them. As I have noted about my album “Fire and Water”, the recording was my homage to both the golden age of piano playing as well as to the music-making (in every sense) of that period and it is also very much a tribute to some of the pianists I admire the most, from Rachmaninov and Sofronitsky to Horowitz, Michelangeli and Argerich, to name but a few. Thanks to the technology of our age, we can now get access to endless sources of recordings online, so there will always be something great and fabulous to be heard and from which to learn.
FW: What is your most memorable concert experience?
JL: There are some memorable concerts I have attended that still cause quite a stir inside my mind. I think one of the most extraordinary concerts that I ever attended was hearing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony conducted by Christopher von Dohnanyi at the Verbier Festival when I was 15. Also in the same year, I heard Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and that performance opened up my ongoing interest in both Stravinsky’s music and contemporary music. Also, Andras Schiff’s performance of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op.111 as an encore after the Diabelli Variations at the Wigmore Hall was one of the most enlightening spiritual journeys I have ever been on. I clapped too hard that evening and had to have a day off from my practise session the next day to recover!
FW: As a musician, what is your definition of success?
JL: Along with the growth of age and experience etc., the definition of success also means something different. Personally, I don’t think music-making – which is what we actually do as a musician – should be measured or defined by “success”. But if one has to put it this way, in my opinion, the success of the musician is as simple as having the discipline to work hard, the energy to perform well, the dream to develop further, friends with whom to make music and curiosity and ambition for lifelong learning.
FW: What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
JL: To learn all the rules is most critical and essential, but then to follow one’s intuition is something that one should also take account when aspiring to make great music. Also, one should always keep in mind that why we make music – is it all about winning a competition or securing a successful career, or is it something far beyond these instant outcomes? I think longevity and creativity are the qualities that would definitely help to make a much healthier and more thriving musical journey.
FW: Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
JL: I hope I will still sit in front of some gorgeous music and play faithfully every day – this applies not only to the next 10 years but also for the next 50 years.
FW: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
JL: In Chinese, there is a saying called 乐极生悲 which translated into English as “Joy surfeited turns to sorrow”. Music inspires and teaches me to see through things in many different ways and aspects. Nevertheless, if one had to categorise and grade the level of happiness, I assume that to be able to focus on the things in which one believes and to be able to live it with great enthusiasm would be perfect happiness – which in my case, is to be a musician in every sense.
FW: What is your most treasured possession?
JL: I would say my family, mentors, friends, and all the wonderful people who have been and will be with me on my musical journey.
FW: What is your present state of mind?
JL: Peaceful and thriving at the same time!
For further information, please visit: crosseyedpianist.com
Featured interview from Literaturnaya Gazeta
On 4 July the 3rd Krasnoyarsk International Music Festival of the Asia-Pacific Region will come to an end. This cultural forum, featuring performers from 19 countries, including China, Korea, Japan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand and Philippines, as well as many Russian ensembles, has made a comeback following a seventeen-year absence. Various concert venues in the city staged everything from symphonic work, opera and ballet to folk, jazz, pop and rock music.
One performer at the festival was 22-year-old Chinese pianist JI Liu. He agreed to answer our questions.
Literaturnaya Gazeta (LG): You are the youngest performer at this festival...
Ji Liu (JL): In December last year I was invited to perform in the Grand Hall at the Moscow State Conservatory. While I was filling in my travel documents, I found out about the call for applications for this festival. I sent a video of a performance of mine for the qualifying round and got through... I love playing in Russia, and especially in Siberia - it feels like a crossroads, a confluence of cultures. Russian audiences are unique, the one of the best in the world. I think Russians are very receptive to art.
LG: Who is your ideal pianist?
JL: Richter, Gilels and Horowitz. My Chinese teacher studied in Russia under Jakov Zak at the Moscow State Conservatory, and I also studied with Dimitri Bashkirov in Madrid before moved to London. So I have a close link with the Russian piano school.
LG: Famously, in ancient China, artists were traditionally not divided up according to their skills. Talented people could do everything - play an instrument, write poems and draw. When they tired of epithets, they would take out their ink pot; and when they had run out of paint, they would compose some couplets. Aside from music do you excel in any other art forms?
JL: I write poems and compose a little - I'm taking a composition class at the Royal Academy of Music/ I love setting my poems to my own vocal pieces of music. I don't draw, but I have a passion for Western European Fine Arts.
LG: The entire concert hall was amazed by your performance of Debussy. Impressionist music requires a particular immersion in its images, finely nuanced playing and a feel for the musical colour. Yet, you manage to achieve all this with surprising balance. How do you do it?
JL: I find Impressionism music the most natural to perform. I would say that Debussy's music reminds me of Chinese ideography, where each hieroglyph or symbol is an image in itself. Like Chinese artists, Debussy leaves empty spaces on the canvas, full of hidden meaning. And the colour of the sound also has great significance in Debussy.
LG: If you are so fond of Impressionist and Romantic music, why did you include a work by Beethoven in the programme? Must it surely be difficult for a performer to play such contrasting compositions in one concert?
JL: I admire Beethoven both as a person as a composer. I wanted to programme my concert with the force and energy that pervades his music. I was trying to show different aspects of myself to the listener.
LG: What are your future creative plans?
JL: I want to become a pianist and composer who can weave different genres, from Baroque to contemporary music.
On a cold, crisp morning, I prepare to meet Ji Liu at the Royal Academy of Music, his place of study for the last six years. Over a cup of tea, we chat about his time there and what the future holds for him…
Where did your piano studies take place?
I have been passionate about music since I was a child. At the age of 15 I moved to Madrid to study with Dmitri Bashkirov at the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia, before taking up a scholarship to study with Christopher Elton at the Royal Academy of Music. This summer I was taken on by Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT), with whom over the next few years I will be developing my solo career at an international level.
Tell us a bit about your PhD.
I’m starting my PhD at King’s College London in January. It’s going to be called ‘The Beauty of Imperfection’, and will feature a big case study of the Schubert piano sonatas at its centre.
My earliest encounter with Schubert’s unfinished works was 5 years ago. Schubert’s compositions are complicated. Why did he leave so many unfinished? Often, it was simply because he didn’t have enough time to finish them! Sometimes, what he made was so innovative that it wasn’t possible to find a solution – he left them intentionally unfinished.
What’s the nature of your PhD? Is it academic or performance-based?
As a performer, it seems unusual to do a PhD. However, at King’s, it won’t be a totally academic thing. I obviously have to write a dissertation, but it’s combined with a lot of performance, so it allows me to approach the Schubert project in a more ‘contemporary’ way.
So you think it’s important to think about music academically?
I think we have to be able to explain what our intentions as performers are. If we don’t know what to do or think about, how will the audience have any chance of understanding what we have to say? Emotion in performance is obviously very important, but it’s equally important to know and think about what you’re performing.
What other projects did you undertake before deciding to do a PhD?
During my Masters, I did a project about piano music and sand animation, called ‘When Sand Met Sound’. With sand art, you start with a plain plate of sand, and swipe to create images. In a way, it shares a lot with music – it’s very much about time and improvisation.
I wanted to create a duo between the two art forms – not something where the music accompanies the sand or vice versa. I wanted it to depict a story, so I used vivid pieces, like the Danse Macabre or Liebestraum. Hopefully it means that this music can be introduced to a wider audience, not just to those who are interested in classical music.
Have you always had an interest in visual art?
As a pianist, the audience always asks me if I see images when I perform, but I can’t really answer this exactly. It’s true that I have a visual memory, that I can see the score in my head, but hearing the audience ask these questions inspires me to think about what else I might see when I perform. My sand art project, in a way, was trying to show people how and what we think of when we listen to music. It wasn’t meant to be something superficial or theatrical – I wanted to help people understand the music better. Music can’t be seen or heard really, only experienced.
So, what’s the plan for the future?
My plans are always to continue building core repertoire, to not be afraid to play so called ‘popular’ works, and at the same time to challenge audiences with different ways of programming contemporary music. I’m looking forward to releasing my new album which will feature many ‘popular’ pieces such as Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, some Chopin Nocturnes and Liszt’s Liebestraum. Ultimately I hope that people will define me as a ‘musician’, rather than simply a ‘pianist’. Although the piano is my primary study and first identity, I also compose, love playing chamber music and am fascinated by visual art, theatre, dance, literature, philosophy, and so on.
What are your other interests?
I breakdance. Most people reel back in horror when they hear this, because of the danger to my fingers! However, it increases the flexibility of my body, and makes me aware of my whole body, meaning I don’t just obsess over my fingers and forget everything else. It makes my soul freer – in the same way, I don’t restrict my musical taste. I play jazz and blues, read a lot, and enjoy movies as well.