A young Montreal classical pianist is suddenly an international star.
After winning the prestigious 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw last week, his career path has been dramatically altered. But Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu still sees the same man in the mirror.
“I have a title, but I’m still me,” Mr. Liu told The Globe and Mail on a video call from the Polish capital. “I will find inspiration as I’ve done before. This will never change.”
Mr. Liu, 24, is the first Canadian to take the top prize in a competition that is held every five years and is akin to the Olympics for piano prodigies. The win on Thursday is worth €40,000 ($57,500) and propels him from near obscurity to rock-star status in the classical music world. Fans watching his livestreamed performances online have already dubbed him “Bruce Almighty.”
The graduate of the Montreal Conservatoire defeated 87 competitors over a pressure-packed series of main stage rounds from Oct. 3 to 21 that eventually pooled him against 11 other finalists. Accompanied by Poland’s National Philharmonic Orchestra, his joyful, effervescent rendition of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor, Opus 11 won over an international panel of judges in the final round.
Previous winners of the Chopin competition who went on to became superstars include Poland’s Rafal Blechacz and Krystian Zimerman, Argentina’s Martha Argerich and Italy’s Maurizio Pollini, who famously didn’t perform publicly for more than a year after winning because he didn’t feel ready.
“So many things are happening,” Mr. Liu said. “I need time to figure out what’s next.”
He doesn’t have the luxury of collecting himself. A tour connected to the Chopin competition is already underway, with concerts scheduled in Japan, Israel, South Korea and throughout Poland. His win automatically awarded him a two-album deal with the illustrious Deutsche Grammophon label.
At the moment, Mr. Liu is without a manager. Although he has a booking agent in China – he has toured the country previously – he is without representation in Europe or North America. “I have to take a bit of time to negotiate these things,” he said.
The pianist was born in Paris to Chinese parents who are now divorced. He moved to Canada at the age of four with his father. While he plans to keep Montreal as his North American base, he also anticipates a move to Europe to better take advantage of marketing opportunities and touring schedules abroad.
“His life will change overnight,” said Mr. Liu’s current teacher, the Montreal-based Dang Thai Son. “Those who had heard of him already know his value, but with this competition his talent has been discovered. His career starts now.”
Mr. Dang would know. In 1980, the Hanoi-born pianist became the first Asian to win First Prize at the Chopin competition. In 1991, well into his international concert career, he immigrated to Montreal. As a teacher, he began working with Mr. Liu in 2017 at the University of Montreal.
Something of a Chopin competition rainmaker, he was in Warsaw this year with six students, including Mr. Liu and sixth-place finisher J.J. Jun Li Bui, a Toronto native.
With Mr. Liu’s big win, Mr. Dang’s tutelage ends. “My mission is complete,” he told The Globe. “He’s a bird, so let him fly.”
Former teachers of Mr. Liu echoed Mr. Dang’s sentiments. “The Chopin competition is a wonderful opportunity, but the biggest challenge will be for him to sustain it,” said Wonny Song, Mr. Liu’s childhood instructor and currently the executive and artistic director at Orford Musique, an international music academy in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. “Every five years there’s another winner.”
Richard Raymond, who instructed Mr. Liu at the Montreal Conservatoire from 2011 to 2018, characterized the prodigy’s playing as rich, refined and dynamic. “He can sculpt a sound, bringing a lot of colours into the music,” Mr. Raymond said. “We talk about a young genius, and that’s great, but evolution as an artist is important. It’s a life-long journey.”
While under Mr. Raymond’s tutelage, Mr. Liu won the grand prize at a competition affiliated with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 2012 at age 15. Around that time he became more serious about piano as a career. “You win something and it’s encouragement,” Mr. Liu said. “You stay with it.”
Asked about his favourite composers, he was elusive: “It depends on my emotions. It changes every few days.” As a performer he’s not interested in virtuosity for razzle-dazzle’s sake. “We’re like a wingman to transmit what the composer is trying to express to the public, through our own personality.”
As for pianists he admires, he is a fan of Italy’s Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, considered one of classical music’s greats of the 20th century, as well as jazz giant Keith Jarrett. “I envy people with improvisational skills,” he explained. “Unfortunately, it’s not for me.”
If Mr. Liu’s future is up for grabs, a significant part of his past is in the rear-view mirror. “I’m done with competitions, and I’m so glad,” he said. “It’s the happiest thing I can think of at the moment.”
The Globe and Mail, October 26, 2021