Great musicians often seem to come out of nowhere, but with 19-year-old Jan Lisiecki, it's almost true.
That's not a comment on his hometown of Calgary, Alberta. The Canadian/Polish pianist probably could have grown up in almost any metropolitan area and still found his own way to his current artistic status - he plays with many of the world's great orchestras - with little outside guidance.
"I'm not one to look up to heroes," he said backstage in Verizon Hall, where he performs with the Philadelphia Orchestra this weekend. "It's just not in my thinking. You're often disappointed when you get to know them."
And that includes some pianistic idols: "I might like the way Martha Argerich does some things . . . or how Krystian Zimerman does other things - better. And I like Glenn Gould." Notice how he doesn't use the word love.
Unlike pianists who burst upon the world after a big competition win, Lisiecki slid gradually into playing concerts - no pushy parents in the wings - increasing his schedule to the six to 12 concerts he now does each month. While his brand of originality isn't always embraced readily by the music industry, his Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Mozart and Chopin could hardly have been better received.
Not just any pianist would be asked (or would agree) to play this week's marathon Mozart Celebration with the Philadelphians: Over the course of five concerts - Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, Friday afternoon, and a Saturday morning family concert - he will play three different concertos with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who will also conduct three symphonies and three opera overtures).
Lisiecki may not fully realize how bold his playing often is. His Schumann Piano Concerto performance last year in London contained a particularly anguished outburst amid the melancholy surfaces of the first movement; few pianists, if any, have done such a thing, yet it makes poetic sense. Asked about this, Lisiecki starts by crediting conductor Antonio Pappano. But he did the same thing - only more so - in an earlier performance with David Zinman and the New York Philharmonic.
"Then it must have been my idea," he said. "You want to follow what the composer intended. But some composers didn't even know what they wanted or how to notate it. That's where we [performers] come in and do the best with what we have."
The only child of Polish immigrants (both horticulturalists, who arrived in 1988), Lisiecki seems comfortable everywhere but seems not to belong to any one place. Friends aren't necessarily in Calgary, but wherever he plays concerts in various parts of the world. He speaks with an ambiguous accent - somewhat Canadian, but with an Eastern European tinge - that blends in in multicultural Calgary. But he slips into fluent Polish when visiting his grandparents at their summer home near Gdansk.
He sees Nézet-Séguin as a peer, feeling that both are at the same point in their careers, though Nézet-Séguin is nearly 20 years older. Perhaps that's because Lisiecki played his first orchestral concert at age nine. Making music, he says, seems to make everybody the same age: "Last year, I met Claudio Abbado [who died in January at 80], and when he was on the podium, he didn't seem old at all."
Physically, Lisiecki has grown so much in recent years - he turned 19 last month - that he has trouble fitting his legs under the older pianos he plays. So he sits a bit farther back from the keyboard. "I also have long arms, so it's OK," he said.
With his lanky build and bushy blond hair, he resembles a high-school basketball star - but maybe with less ego. "Pleasant, easy, down-to-earth," is how orchestra violinist Davyd Booth describes him. "His playing feels healthy. Nothing neurotic."
For one thing, there's no inner conflict between his own interpretive urges and those that might have been foisted on him by the kind of teachers some prodigies experience. In Calgary, he had lessons from two local teachers, but only until age 14 - he was getting conflicting advice so he set off on his own. Only recently has he taken up with Marc Durand, a Montreal-based teacher he sees every few months in Toronto for lengthy lessons.
All this didn't add up to a normal childhood. But as a recently appointed UNICEF cultural ambassador who recently saw Syrian refugee camps attempting to continue education for displaced children, Lisiecki knows that "there is no normal." At least during summers with his grandparents, the nearest piano is a half-hour drive away.
Accomplished young pianists are everywhere these days; what makes this one confounding is his apparent maturity. The cadenzas in his performances of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 K. 466 (on the Friday evening program) have the emotional complexity of Shakespearean soliloquies - the first movement's in the King Lear zone. Lisiecki takes credit for choosing cadenzas (he uses Beethoven's, not Mozart's) but believes the maturity lies in the music. He just brings it out.
Yet with so little artistic mileage, how does he know when a concerto is ready for the public? "It has to be, by the time of the concert," he said, laughing.
More seriously: "This is something you deal with all the time as a musician. I know the Mozart D minor concerto better now, so you could say that it wasn't ready [when I performed it] a year ago. In fact, I think it was ready. And before that, I recorded it. I'm sure that my interpretation has changed substantially since that time. I'm not sure if it's better or worse.
"But there really is no such thing, really. It's how it is today."
8 p.m. Thursday, 2 and 8 p.m. Friday, and 11:30 a.m. (family concert) and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets.
Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.