Interview with top Chinese pianist and composer Ji Liu.
Having recently topped the UK’s classical charts with his debut album Piano Reflections, Chinese pianist and composer Ji Liu has emerged as one of the world’s most talented young musicians. Piano Lessons caught up with him to discuss his musical background, his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 13 and how breakdancing has helped him become a better player…
Though he may only be in his early 20s, Chinese piano virtuoso, Ji Liu, has already accomplished more in his short career than many could hope to achieve in a lifetime. Boasting a string of awards and accolades to rival that of one far beyond his years, it’s little surprise that Liu’s debut album Piano Reflections recently topped the UK classical album chart, amassing widespread critical acclaim and glowing endorsements along the way.
Yet his rapid rise to prominence on the classical scene will come as little surprise to those familiar with his story. Born in Shanghai to a musical family, Liu’s natural flair began to emerge at an unusually young age.
“My mother played guitar and my father played the trumpet and, although they weren’t professional musicians, they really loved music,” he explains. “As a baby, my parents noticed that I could hum in tune and thought early on that maybe I had some musical talent, so, when I was three years-old, they took me to a music shop and asked me to choose an instrument that I’d like to play. I was drawn to the piano, as I liked that you could hit a key and it would straight away make a sound that was in tune.”
Immediately, Liu began taking music lessons, learning and practicing piano throughout his school years before continuing his studies at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and embarking on a trip to Europe, where he learnt under the mentroship of legendary pianist and educator, Dmitri Bashkirov; a move which proved to be hugely significant in his already burgeoning development.
“Between then [age three] and the age of nine, I practiced during school time, but then I went to study at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music for six years. After that, when I was 15, I moved to Spain to study with Dmitri Bashkirov who is one of the most legendary musical masters in the world.”
The years that followed left a lasting impression on the young maestro, describing his time in Spain with Bashkirov as one of the happiest and most fulfilling experiences of his life.
“Studying in Spain was the most pleasant and relaxed time during my youth. In China – in the Conservatories – it was extremely stressful; everyone was very competitive and wanted to be the best. But Spain is a very relaxed country, where the people are more friendly and relaxed and where I was studying was in the countryside. I liked it very much. And Bashkirov treated me like a grandson. He taught me not just how to play the piano but how to become a faithful musician.”
However, it was at the age of 13, whilst still cutting his teeth at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, that Liu was given his major breakthrough – a debut appearance at Carnegie Hall, which he cites as the most pivotal and poignant moment of his career.
“I just wanted to hide under the piano before I came out on stage,” he recalls. “It was a real struggle. I was so nervous, but once I went out on to the stage the audience was so supportive and that moment opened my mind. Suddenly I could feel the connection between me, the composers and the audience, like a trinity with the soul getting connected. It was a magic, chemical effect. At that moment I knew that playing piano was what I wanted to do with my life.”
Four years after his transcendent Carnegie Hall experience, Liu relocated to London; a city he proudly calls home.
“I came to London when I was 17 and it has been the best choice of my life. I really loved Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare and Harry Potter, so London is now more like a home to me. The more I live here, the more I love it. It’s such a comprehensive city; nowhere else can compare.”
When it comes to instrumental preferences, Liu identifies Steinway pianos as his model of choice, although having plied his trade on several types of piano over the years, he believes that each piano comes with its own personality, enabling players to develop different techniques depending on the instrument they are using.
“My parents bought me a Yamaha grand when I was ten years old, before I was practicing on the upright. Now I have a Steinway, which I really like. I don’t have any preference as long as they are good instruments and have a personality, but I do like Steinway a lot. When I was in China, our technique is mainly trained on the fingers, so I think a lot of Asian pianists play on Yamaha pianos because they have a light touch and light reaction.
“After I moved to Europe I learned more from different schools, and I think the Steinway has a very inspiring touch. I think it really connects with musicians and you need a different technique to play on a Steinway or a Yamaha or a Bosendorfer.”
It’s not just years of rehearsing and international study that have made Liu the layer he is today; he also lists breakdancing among the key practices that have helped him develop particular techniques. Being slight of figure, Liu claims that breakdancing has improved both his overall strength and helped him overcome a couple of technical issues he previously had trouble with.
“I saw some people breakdancing at the Southbank Centre two years ago and I was amazed at their strength and body language. At that time I was really slim, even more than I am now, and I couldn’t do push-ups and my playing is very thin, so sometimes I didn’t project in a big hall very much at that time. So, I started to train and learn breakdancing to build my strength and after a few months I was producing a bigger sound on the piano. Sometimes I encountered technical problems with octaves and so on, but after learning breakdancing the technical issues had gone away. I have to be very careful with my hands though, so I’m hopping to move more onto the popping than breakdancing now!”
As well as introducing him to the world of breakdancing, the Southbank Centre also set the scene for his first performance in front of Classic FM director Darren Henley; the man who would subsequently set Liu’s recording career in motion.
“He first heard me in 2011 when I played a concert at the Southbank Centre. Then I play
ed at Wigmore Hall in 2012 and he spoke to me briefly backstage, before speaking to my sponsor and arranging this project for me, for which I’m very grateful.”
The album, which is centred on the themes of nighttime and romance, saw Liu and Henley collaborate on a track listing that would reflect the influence of Liu’s musical heroes, including the likes of Vladimir Horowitz, Murray Perahia, Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, whilst also showcasing his own artistic vision throughout.
“It was difficult to choose what to put on, as there are so many great things to play. At first I thought I could do some transcriptions of people like Rihanna and pop songs alongside some classical music, but they said they should orient me as a classical artist on my first album. Maybe on my tenth album I can do that!”
Liu also notes the input of revered producer Andrew Cornall, who went to great lengths to help him stamp his own identity on the final product.
“He is one of the most experienced producers in the entire recording industry. He’s worked with people like Ashkenazy and Pavarotti, all those big names, so it was my great honour to work with him. This is my debut solo album, so I was really nervous before going into the studio. But he is so supportive and so warm that he helped me a lot and encouraged me to do my own thing.”
A deep-seated drive to carve out an identity of his own lies very much at the heart of Liu’s work ethic. Despite his young age, and the fact that he has only just released his first album, he is already wary of being labeled or categorised in a way that could hamper or restrict his artistic endeavours. While other classical players might be content to fall in line with a more traditional approach to the genre, Liu is adamant that the innovative, pioneering approach of his idols marks the way forward for future generations of classical musicians.
“Vladimir Horowitz is definitely one of my heroes, and Julian Lloyd Webber, whose creative career is one of my biggest inspirations, as I don’t want to pigeonhole myself as a traditional pianist. I want my career to be more creative and innovative so I can expand my interests to a bigger field. As artists, it is our duty and mission to introduce classical music to young people in a variety of ways, because we don’t want to see classical music die in the next 50 years.”