“In the composer’s mind, all the emotional feelings are hidden between the notes”: Ji Liu

A fashionista, a breakdancer… and an internationally acclaimed pianist and composer? Jennifer Tsai meets a young musician trying to work out who he is whilst soaring the heights of fame…

On a cold January evening in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago, I cycled in excited anticipation to a piano recital that I had been looking forward to for a while: Shanghai-born pianist and composer Ji Liu was playing in the elegant and intimate surroundings of the St George’s Hall Concert Room. The 480-seated space — decorated in white, honey and cream, and with a magnificent crystal chandelier suspended in the centre — is often seen as an exemplar of early Victorian design and was praised by Charles Dickens  as ‘the most perfect room in the world’.

Fitting surroundings perhaps for Ji Liu: having just released a stunning second album, entitled Piano Encores, is difficult to remember that he is still barely 25 years old. Ji began playing piano at the age of three, and won an international competition at 13 to perform a recital at New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall. Following this, he studied in Spain and Germany before winning a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in 2007. Ji has won countless awards for his piano playing and has appeared on many famous international stages. He is also a keen enthusiast of the visual arts, a fashionista and — as I found out in this interview — sometime breakdancer. His debut album, Piano Reflections, released in 2014, reached number one in the classical music charts and his new album is set to follow in the same footsteps.

Jennifer Tsai: Could you tell me about your musical upbringing? How did your interest in the piano first develop?

Ji Liu: I started playing the piano purely because my parents wanted me to have a good hobby. My mother always played music on the radio to me when I was a baby, and they found that I could sing in tune, and so they thought that probably I might have some gift… I think I chose the piano because it was very big! At the time it was a big investment for a family.

They found a tutor for me and I think I made some progress. But I didn’t really think I would become a professional pianist because at that time, my mother thought I should really go to a good university, do all the academic work and become a professor or scientist or whatever. So I just played…

“I never expected I would win, but I got the first prize. They offered me a Carnegie Hall recital”

From the age of three, I played the piano for two hours every day until I was six. I gradually practised more after the age of six…. We were having a holiday [in Shaghai] and saw that Shanghai Conservatory was having auditions for new students, and I played and got accepted. Gradually I became more proficient… [when] I was 13 years old, I went to New York for a competition. It was an international one. I never expected I would win, but I got the first prize. They offered me a Carnegie Hall recital.

I think from that point, because it was the first time I had been abroad and the huge cultural difference between America and China was really shocking, and the audience at that time were really enthusiastic about my playing. I think I got more confident from that concert. It was a real turning point in my career when I thought I should really do something with music.

Who are your favourite composers? 

Definitely Schubert… I think my character and personality is very close to his; I’m quite an introverted person actually and I like to be quiet. But at the same time, there is a determination in the character that Schubert also has. His music is very lyrical, and I don’t know why, but it seems it is less played than Beethoven or Mozart or Hayden… I think he should be played more.

So you think Schubert is under-rated as a composer?

Yes, because he is only being recognised after Schnabel played him in the 1960s. Before that, people thought Schubert was a second rate, instrumental composer, more like a songwriter. So he is one of the composers I would really like to play more. And also I want to play more Bach… because I started to play piano with his Inventions and Fugues.

Ji Liu 2015

Great for technical ability…

Yes, of course, and Chopin is also one of my favourites, so its quite strange that I’ve got a taste for the French, Polish side with Chopin, and also German with Bach and Schubert, Viennese and also I hope to play more contemporary music as well. Because I am also a contemporary composer. We do atonal music.

Are there any pianists that you particularly admire?

Yes, I like old pianists. I mean especially from the beginning of the 20th century, like Godofsky, Rachmaninov himself, and Friedmann, and then Horowitz. Horowitz is my favourite, I mean the favourite because I think he is a magician. He can do so many things that others can’t… I have never heard him live, because he passed away before I was born, but from his recordings, he really brought the audience to another sound world which we can’t really experience in our normal life. That is what I want to achieve: to bring audiences a really ultimate experience in the concert. He is really my biggest inspiration, both as a magician and as a person. He is so sincere with music.

What other music do you listen to in your free time apart from classical?

My tastes are quite diversified. I listen to pop as well, and jazz.

You played some Gershwin at the concert at St Georges Hall.

Yes, that’s more classical jazz… I think it’s good music.

It sounded very complicated .

I think they are very clever transcriptions and I also listen to those classical crossovers, like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, and operas, and I like film music as well like Hans Zimmer, who is one of my favourite film composers. He did Pirates of the Caribbean, and Sherlock Holmes… We were thinking of doing a third album and including more of this kind of crossover music.

“I’m always struggling with whether I’m a ‘classical musician’ or a ‘musician’. It sounds the same, but to some classical purists, it’s totally different”

What do you think are the main challenges for you in your piano playing?

How to orient myself as a musician, because I’m always struggling with whether I’m a ‘classical musician’ or a ‘musician’. It sounds the same, but to some classical purists, it’s totally different. They think classical musicians should only play Beethoven, should only play Bach and from a certain point, tend to categorise music, like this is classical music, this is jazz, this is pop. But I think putting adjectives before the music is limiting. To me because my tastes are so wide-ranging, I don’t limit myself to certain things. I believe I have the ability to bring more things to my career. So I think at this stage of my life because I’m still in my 20s, it’s a bit difficult to orient myself.

You’re referring to the use of labelling, stereotyping, which is limiting.

Yes, like when I did my first album last year…

Piano Reflections…

Yes, when I recorded it, the only thing in my mind was to make great music rather than sell how many albums or whatever. Then the commercial success was unexpected, I never would have thought that. But I think when people see this kind of album which sells a lot, they would start to doubt the quality of music-making before they actually hear it.

What do you mean by that?

I mean that when they see, for example, the Moonlight Sonata, they say, well, why would we need another Moonlight Sonata after so many people have recorded that?

It’s so popular…

It’s popular, it’s just too well-known a piece, but I think it’s a great piece to play.

Classic FM Live 2014: rehearsals with Ji Liu

It’s a beautiful piece.

Yes, and a difficult piece actually. I think to play Moonlight well is a real challenge, not musically or technically, but how to find my own voice within the context of Beethoven’s score. It’s difficult. A lot of people would say Ji just wants to play popular classical music and please the audience, but I think I just want to make good music, and that’s a statement I want to make. That’s the challenge.

On my second album, there are even more famous classical pieces and how to convince people that I’m a sincere musician rather than a commercial one, that’s my challenge. I think I have to really devote myself to music and prove that music can be played in a different way, because it’s a great way to introduce classical music to more people, to young people… I was glad to see some children [in the audience in Liverpool]. That was really cute.

That’s a good mission to have. 

I was wondering if you see any cultural differences in the music scene between China and the UK? You mentioned New York earlier on, and you’ve spent time in Spain, Germany and you consider London to be your home now. But of course, you have your Chinese upbringing.

I think there are differences but I think more and more, the world is getting closer. Especially with the Internet and technology, and I think the differences are less obvious than 10 or even 15 years ago. When I was 10 years old, I played concerts in China but at that time, Chinese audiences seemed a bit distant from classical music. They really respected it, but were not too involved in it with their life and blood because it was still in the 1990s. Since the success of recent Chinese pianists like Lang Lang and Yundi… They have really brought classical music to a massive Chinese audience and we do hear classical music now everywhere, on television, advertisements. Chinese audiences now have the same enthusiasm as Western audiences.

I was in China with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra last October. We did Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in Suzhou and the audience was really cheerful and really enjoyed the music. They have a great knowledge now, and good ears. Every time now, when I go back to China, it’s different. I can feel the audiences liking classical music more and more. But when I was 13 years old, I really felt a difference because of the high buildings in New York, and it was busy, and people tend to be very honest about what you play.

“In England, I can feel very sophisticated musical thinking in the audience. In some other countries, the audiences are more intuitive and they respond to the music more spontaneously”

Americans are more direct with their critique…

Yes, but I think the difference is getting less… Still I feel that audiences in different countries have their own identity somehow, like in England, I can feel very sophisticated musical thinking in the audience. In some other countries, the audiences are more intuitive and they respond to the music more spontaneously and more enthusiastically. These are cultural differences.

Apart from music, what other interests do you have? What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I like to watch movies a lot actually. I think it’s a great source of inspiration in terms of creating something. There’s a link. When I play music, I tend to tell a story. And I want to create some feeling in the music. Film is more direct because it’s visual. Film is great because it’s also linked with music. Because film is evolved from theatre, from opera. There’s always a way to link it with music. And I breakdance sometimes!

That sounds cool!

Gradually, I tend to do it less because of my hands.

Yes, you have to be careful…

Because more concerts are coming up. I don’t want to hurt myself or have an accident!

You could try another type of dancing, like ballet, or tap!

Yes, probably! [laughs] I like to read a lot, both literature or academic books, because if I play Schubert or Schumann, we really need to know a lot of things behind the piece, not just the background and the composer’s mood but more academically: which year it was published, the first edition, the place of publication and the differences between them. Once we know the differences, I think the performer has the right to choose the edition he wants to use.

“I was in the practice room in Madrid and it just suddenly rained, I felt inspired and could feel what Chopin felt”

For example, Chopin published a range of editions for the Preludes in Oxford and France and there are different notes for the editions. I think some of the notes sound better. We have to do all the research before making the choice.

Recently, I was reading about the background to Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, which he played when he was in Spain.

Yes, in Majorca. Actually, I played this Prelude when I was in Madrid. I was 15 years old. I think to be in the place where the composer wrote the piece was quite interesting to see because the rain in Spain is insane sometimes. It hardly rains but if it rains in Madrid, it really rains. It’s not like the rain in Shanghai or Beijing. It’s different. The colours of the sky and the trees was really inspiring. I was in the practice room in Madrid and it just suddenly rained, I felt inspired and could feel what Chopin felt. That is why I think it is important for a classical musician to learn in Europe because that is where classical music was born.

What advice would you give to an amateur pianist?

I think love is the most important thing. It is behind everything. You have to love the piece in order to play it. My professor never forced me to play a piece that I didn’t like because some teachers would say, for educational purposes, you need to play this one. But I think my professor at the academy was very open-minded with music; every piece of music has its own technical challenge and I think you can learn all these technical things from different pieces. I think if you fall in love with a piece, you are halfway towards it. And I think practising slowly is the main thing. A lot of people tend to rush to music, they think music is in their mind and they want to play it. But everything has to evolve gradually.

My friends, when I was in the academy, said they could never figure out which piece I was practising in the practice room because I practised so slow, so slow that no-one could ever figure out the piece! But I think that is the way we can feel how the composer felt. Because I myself am a composer and I still write all the notes down. And when you write every note, the speed is actually very slow, so from this note to this note to this note…. In the composer’s mind, all the emotional feelings are hidden between the notes. We have to be able to feel it very slowly and patiently and then gradually it gets into our mind and body.

Do you have a favourite concert hall where you have performed, and is there anywhere you’d like to play in the future?

So many places! I like Wigmore Hall a lot because it’s got a similar feel to St George’s Hall. They are both very intimate but with very good acoustics. I think a 400 seat capacity is the perfect number for a recital. I like the Royal Albert Hall a lot and it’s a great stage. I played there last September and that was one of my favourites, but it’s a completely different feeling from doing a performance there from the Wigmore or St George’s Hall, that’s different.

Ji Liu 2015

I like the Royal Festival Hall. A lot of people say it’s a struggle to play there because of the acoustics but I like to play there. It’s got a clean sound. And I also like to play in unconventional venues. Last year, I did Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Bristol Proms in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, which is the oldest theatre in England. And they set up a big screen, and people could see my hands moving.

So, more avant-garde, experimental venues…

Yes, for concert halls I’d like to play in the future, there are so many. I’d like to go to Sydney Opera House at some point and I know that Paris just opened a Philharmonic last week, it looks so beautiful, and Louis Vuitton has their own concert hall foundation which is very beautiful, really modern architecture. I want to go to Singapore at some point because I’ve heard the acoustics are amazing.

Endless possibilities!

I read a statement on your website where you say that you believe that classical music is for everyone, and one of your dreams is to make classical music more accessible and popular to a wider audience. What do you think are the main obstacles in achieving this in contemporary society?

I think one of the most important things is not to limit classical music to an elite audience. At the time of Liszt and Paganini, their music was just popular music. It was great fun; ladies fainting after Liszt played and Liszt would throw his clothes to the audience, and he was like a pop star.

Classical music is great fun for an audience. The most important thing is not to say that classical music is serious. I mean, it is. We have to have a serious attitude in order to play it, to face the composer. But for the audience, we need to be more open-minded. Like for my second album, Piano Encores, there are pieces like Mozart’s Turkish March, transcribed by Volodos. The transcription has more excitement, which more young people would like. It really brings a pop atmosphere to classical music while not losing its own unique-ness.

Also, in terms of setting, we need to bring classical music not only to concert halls but more to schools, hospitals, prisons. That’s a social mission for the arts.

“I learnt conducting when I was in Shanghai Conservatory and I really believe that for a Mozart or Beethoven concerto, there is a great way of conducting from the keyboard like Barenboim”

Would you like to do more community based work?

Yes, also in the future, I would like to collaborate more with visual arts and dancers… I have a great passion also for fashion design. This is a great link for me to introduce classical music to more young people.

My final question is about your future plans and ambitions as a pianist?

I’m going to Ireland next month where they will have the Chinese New Year Festival. I’ll play a recital there. I’m having a Scottish tour next month as well. I’m playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in March and then the second album is also released in China on February 1st. It’s great that I can release my album in my homeland, emotionally. September, I’m playing Rachmaninov’s 2nd concerto with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall and Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, so a lot of things happening. I’m starting to prepare my third album, which I’m hoping to release later this year.

And what will the third album be like?

I’m not sure; there are several possibilities. And I have to see what works for me artistically and for the audience. But I hope to bring more cross-over music to the album to attract more young and arty people because once they really enter this world, they can discover more treasures like great classical pieces by themselves.

In the long term, I hope to continue my piano career and to develop my music making as a conductor as well. I learnt conducting when I was in Shanghai Conservatory and I really believe that for a Mozart or Beethoven concerto, there is a great way of conducting from the keyboard like [Daniel] Barenboim. So I hope to play Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto later this year, and to record all of them at some point in my life, directing from the keyboard and to find a good orchestra that I can work closely and with every detail is very important.

Jennifer Tsai

Ji Liu’s new album, Piano Encores, is out now 

Follow Ji Liu on Twitter (@pianistjiliu) and see his website for tour information and news

Posted on 05/02/2015 by thedoublenegative