A Chinese pianist in London : Ji Liu and his first album on Classic FM

A fraction of our encounters, no matter major or how scarce, has to and must belong to the utmost casual and it is through a mere social media’s ad, yes, and one broadcast from Classic FM that I’ve heard about Ji’s golden hands and velvet notes – subsequently deciding to attend his performance in Barbican on Valentine’s day.

Ji Liu comes from China and is still undertaking studies in London. Yet, he has managed to put out an outstanding batch of tracks and secured a top seat in the charts on the first week of their release. The album is entitled Piano Reflections and features some of the most timeless piano music ever written. Before I leave the sentencing to Ji, I will only suggest a bit of an insight into his character: Ji researches on a PhD on the subject of ‘The beauty of imperfection’. I call it an extremely powerful and evocative idea.


Performance Reviewed/ Opening with a Mendelssohn piece transcribed by Rachmaninoff, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is not forcibly starting with the most well-known of your album tracks. Yet we feel there is a definite intention beneath the sheer choice of the song to introduce the listener to your playing. Could you speak about it?

Ji Liu/ This is a very interesting question which leads to my intention of programming my album. Well, personally, I think that creating a good programme is something quite similar to creating a delicious food menu with different courses – the order is very important. The programme can reveal the performer’s ideas, personalities and identities to the audience from a first glance of the album – even before hearing it play. So, it took me a long time to decide. There were various reasons starting with Mendelssohn/Rachmaninoff “the Scherzo from a Midsummer Night’s Dream”. First of all, I like reading English literature a lot, and in particular, I am a big fan of Shakespeare and his works – it becomes a privilege to present this lovely “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the forms of music! And then, Rachmaninoff’s transcription is super demanding for pianists – although due to its humorous, witty and light character, the piece might not sound as difficult as it actually is, but I think most of my fellow-musicians and colleagues would agree with me that it is a dreadfully difficult and virtuoso showpiece to execute! So, it is a big statement with a gentle gesture to introduce myself and open my album. And there is a tiny secret behind my programme order…my name is “Ji” which shares the same pronunciation of the letter “G” in English – I always sense a personal link with pieces written in the key of G Major or G Minor”! Therefore, the 1st and the last piece in my album are both in G Minor – it is like me putting an invisible signature in my debut album!

PR/ We then note a selection of Chopin, Lizst, Beethoven and Debussy’s most famous piano works – it’s a lot of different composers and styles. Where is the border between imposing your own style on a piece and respecting the (supposed) composer’s personal touch?

J/ Actually, I don’t think I see a border between the composer and I. I think that when we listen to music, the listener, the performer and the composer are all connected, in some ways. Nevertheless, as a performer, when I play and interpret a piece – I do think that to seek composers’ original intentions and reveal this to my audience eloquently are the most important things and missions to me. All these great composers you just mentioned have left clues and indications on their scores, notations, diaries, letters etc. For us to read and feel their thoughts and souls, the only thing we need to do is to follow our eyes, brains and hearts to re-create the sound which suppose to be in the composers’ minds as they imagined and wrote their pieces. Of course, as you know, each performer has different personalities and voices, but I think this is the most fascinating thing about music: that it has so many possibilities, it allows us to believe in ourselves and express individually.

PR/ How do you feel about releasing your first album?

J/ It is one of the most exciting and thrilling experiences in my life! Meanwhile, as a young musician, I am kind of nervous as well – because I didn’t know how the public would react and judge this album until it had actually been released!! I am very happy to see that it has become a No. 1 Classical Album on the Official UK Chart after its first week release. I am very much grateful to the public for being so supportive to me and my album.

PR/ At what time did you first think about becoming a professional pianist?

J/ On this matter, I feel lucky that I was not forced or pushed by anyone. The decision, from myself, came very naturally – the whole story rahter simple: When I was 13 years old, I won an international piano competition in New York City. This prize led me to a Debut Recital at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in NYC. Obviously it was a BIG thing for a 13-year-old kid – although I had played recitals across my native country before, it was the first time I went abroad and shared my playing on such a great stage! I was very nervous until I was actually playing on the stage. I still remember that impression coming through my playing: I suddenly felt a spiritual connection between me and the audience in the hall. It was like an enlightenment to me, and after I played Liszt’s La Campanella, I received an enthusiastic standing ovation ! To a 13-year-old child, it meant a lot. On that moment, I understood music was something magical and supernatural, and then I decided music was THE THING I would like to devote my life to.

PR/ Was it a destiny?

J/ Yes, since things happened so organically and naturally, I think it was! To some extent, I don’t think that I chose music, I believe that music chose me. I cannot imagine how I could live without it.

PR/ As a composer, what are your next plans?

J/ Haha, thank you for reminding my identity as a “composer”! I sometimes tend to forget this identity, simply because now I have so little time to compose after my busy schedule as a pianist. But I do spend time – whenever possible – to note sketches which popped to my mind and could be possibly expanded to full-fledged works in the future. I am planning to write a series of contemporary works based on Schubert’s unfinished Sonatas and other fragments. Meanwhile, I am also keen on transcribing music – so, in the near future, don’t be surprised if you hear me play a Paraphrase on a theme of a song by Lady Gaga!

PR/ And as a performer?

J/ I am now quite busy with travelling and playing concerts, and I am looking forward to my performances at Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall in London later this year and next year respectively. Alongside my concerts, I am also conducting a performance-based project in which I would like to preform Schubert’s complete Piano Sonatas including the unfinished ones collaborating with visual arts and fashion elements. This project is something quite unusual and creative, so I am very excited about it. But in the meantime, I am also a student. We should never stop learning and absorbing wonderful things, particularly while facing to my beloved music, there is so much I can do and explore in my life!

PR/ Isn’t classical music a little bit old fashioned these days?

J/ No, I don’t think so – to me, classical music is timeless, I don’t think we can judge it by putting it into any timescale. Indeed, I am very keen on fashion myself, and as I mentioned, one of my current projects about Schubert is to integrate fashion to music. As a young generation artist living in this multimedia age, I think it is our mission and duty to keep classical music as lively and fresh as possible. And I am not shy or reluctant to experiment and explore performance with modern technology if it would enhance the whole music experience. It is similar to fashion that although every A/W S/S* season that the trend seems evolving and going to new directions, but one of the most fascinating things both about classical music and fashion is that while creative and new things come up, there are always things we can treasure and appreciate timelessly.

PR/ Should we actually not care about fashions and trends? Are they representative of what is actually of real value on a longer term, all fashion themselves have to rise and die?

J/ I deeply respect and appreciate fashion! We should not pigeonhole fashion as short-term waves. To me, fashion is more about the attitude and lifestyle – a lifestyle that one lives to enjoy life beautifully and elegantly. At least, fashion stays with me when I eat, drink, walk, breath, play the piano and do anything!

PR/ Do you feel old fashioned?

J/ Definitely not! Hopefully this won’t sound too narcissistic! Haha! Well, I love fashion! Designers’ works which I particularly like are from Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford, Christopher Bailey, Christopher Kane, Issey Miyake, Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Victoria Beckham and Kenzo – oh yes, I love Kenzo a lot!!!! I think my body-shape suit their cut and style a lot.

PR/ How did you choose the pieces to include on your album? Is there a pre-requisite repertoire of classics that one can’t avoid? (easy-listening danger incoming!)

J/ Well, as artists, to some extent, we have to think of what the audience would like to listen to. We need to communicate with the audience – music is the bridge. So, by programming pieces that audiences love, the chemical effect is more likely to happen. But I am not saying this would be artistic vs. commercial compromise at all – I enjoy playing every piece of my album, as all of them are masterpieces written in the history, and I am confident and eager to present my own interpretation to any audience.

PR/ In many pieces is tempo suggested only in a word. (ie. Without metronomic indication) How does one feel the tempo of a piece turning out right?

J/ The tempo is always one of the most important issues. There are many facts that would finally lead me to decide a right tempo – it is a little like forecasting the weather – probably more complicated than that! But to me, to learn the tradition and the context are a must – for example, Czerny studied with Beethoven for a long time. He then wrote a book about playing Beethoven in the authentic way, where metronomic indications were given to each of his master’s Sonatas and Concertos. And we shall definitely treat this as a first hand resource. But apart from this, the most important thing about tempo is to follow one’s heart and find the right pulse. Nevertheless, the acoustic of each concert hall is different – the sound needs time to travel and project. For example, playing the same piece in the Wigmore Hall and at the Royal Festival Hall: the tempos which I play on different platforms must be slightly different! It really depends!

PR/ As a pianist myself I have a problem with cold hands, in London. Do you cope well with weather conditions?

J/ In general, I am OK with the changing weather! However, I would struggle if I were to play in a place where the heating didn’t work during the winter time! I remember playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.488 in an English church during the Christmas period, the heating didn’t work… and there was no piano for me to warm up on backstage… So, in the end, after our freezing rehearsal, the conductor and I decided that for the concert, I would go on the stage and play 6 Chopin Etudes to get my fingers warmed, and that before performing the Concerto!

PR/ Tell us what has to be so magical about the piano.

J/ To me, piano is not a cold mechanism – it is bursting with personality, emotion, warmth, everything you can expect from a kind human being. And the most wonderful thing about a piano is that although everyone can press a key to make it sound, there are also many layers and colours we can create by simply pressing the key. It is like an invisible pen that has many colours, and we just need to paint the sound on the air. To be able to create a sound world with the piano, I feel so blessed to be a pianist!

PR/ Does it affect your life a lot? Do you think classical music has a stronger, deeper impact on changing the people’s life than pop, contemporary music?

J/ To get so close to great composers’ most intimate worlds is such a blissful experience to me. Personally, there is no gap or boundary between genres – and I don’t think classical music is something more “posh” or “better” than pop music. Indeed, there are only two types of music – good or bad. I think as long as the music expresses the people’s emotions and touches them, it is already enough – if by any chance it could enlighten people, that is even better! And, as you know, I am a composer, so sometimes it is my pleasure to write pop songs. My style is actually very contemporary! Also, as we see, pop music culture is quite influenced by Classical. So, it is my aim to break the barrier between genres – I do not think it is good to lock classical musicians in the ivory tower – particularly in such a free, innovative, vibrant and globalised society.

PR/ What would you say to a young child learning the piano?

J/ Well, just to enjoy playing it – it is not only a big instrument, but also a big toy and a very friendly mate! And yes, if possible, practice as much as you can, practice does help us play better! Indeed, don’t force too much if something didn’t work out properly when practicing, everything will be OK at the end of the day, so just be patient, grateful and positive!

PR/ What is your Fault?

J/ Let me think – recently, I think I ate too much chocolate – that’s my fault… and I need to go to the gym more often!

*Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer

Author: Francois Mauld d'Aymee

Francois trains to become a classical singer at the same time he runs a tutoring company in Central London. He loves opera as much as any other kind of classical music, never missing an occasion to attend the great performances.