The 51st HK Arts Festival

Bruce Liu Unleashes Chopin's Playfulness

Text / Cheung Tsz Yuet

In October 2021, one of the most prestigious events in the world of classical music, the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, finally took place in Poland. After a long wait of six years, the competition—held once every five years and delayed due to the pandemic—once again gathered young and talented pianists from across the globe. 24-year-old Bruce Liu Xiaoyu, who won over critics and the audience alike with his breathtaking performance, was crowned the winner, defeating more than 500 opponents. Ever since then, the name Bruce Liu has been associated with the legendary pianist Chopin.

Chopin grants performers maximum freedom

Liu plays Chopin with elegance and a range of emotions, overflowing with splendid colours. Music critics have described Liu's playing as technically "pristine", and praised him for tackling Chopin's Scherzo in E major Op. 54 with a sense of flexibility and a contemplative quality that is more than a "merely playful approach".

During the competition, Liu recalls receiving comments on the "unconventional" way he played Chopin. Speaking with FestMag in Canada, Liu explains where the nuanced difference in his interpretation originates from. Chopin was forced to flee and live in exile in France, mourning and missing his own country after the Polish November Uprising against the Russian occupation failed, and that is why most people have a stereotypical impression of Chopin's pieces being imbued with sadness and negativity. However, in the eyes of Liu, Chopin is "multi-emotional". Liu points out that those people failed to see that Chopin had a sense of humor and a reputation of being "a party animal" under the influence of salon culture at the time.

"When you hear someone playing Chopin, you can really know his personality," says Liu, adding that this Romantic figure grants a great deal of freedom to performers, unlike classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. "Chopin is one of the very few composers that you can play in your own style a lot, and still be very convincing without losing the authenticity of the composer."

While Chopin's music brims with Polish culture and dance music, Liu adds a touch of his innate optimism to his playing. And the pianist believes that Chopin's sensuality and sensitivity helped free Liu from his rational mind. Liu once said: "What we all have is our difference." That is the reason why the multicultural and free Chopin has blossomed in new colours at the fingertips of Liu.

A 'busy child' who never sat still

Like Chopin, Liu has a playful side. Growing up in a multicultural environment, Liu was endowed with the ability to quickly adapt to the multicultural contexts of various musical genres. Born in Paris to Chinese parents in 1997 and raised in Canada, Liu also visited his grandparents in Beijing each year. In his grandparents' words, Liu was "the busy child" who never sat still, jumping here and there—and Liu says with a laugh that the "piano somehow was a way to keep me focused for five or 10 minutes". When Liu started learning piano at the age of eight, his father, a banker, found him a piano teacher in a newspaper advertisement. Unsure of Liu's future commitment to the art, Liu's father was reluctant to "invest" initially, only buying him an electronic keyboard with 55 keys. It was not until Liu won his first junior competition at the age of 14 or 15 that he earned himself his first grand piano. Nevertheless, Liu admitted to once having thoughts of giving up. But as a natural-born optimist, he persevered and embarked on the path of becoming a performer.

"In my own mind, I didn't really change, you know. I played like that before the competition; still my nature, my character, my vision," Liu says. One of the major differences that sets his solo concerts apart from competition performances is that Liu chooses his own repertoire according to his own philosophy, and he prefers more "approachable" and less-performed "hidden gems". At his upcoming performances at the 51st Hong Kong Arts Festival, Liu will perform Chopin's Piano Concerto No 2 alongside the HK Phil, and stage his first solo concert in Hong Kong. Liu's carefully designed programme consists of four pieces, starting with two selections from his competition repertoire, Mazurka in F major, Op.5 and Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat minor, Op. 35, followed by Ravel's Miroirs, and ending with Liu's personal favourite, Réminiscences de Don Juan by Liszt. In his own words, Ravel's impressionistic piece bridges the gap between the Classical and Romantic composers, like a sorbet between two main courses.

Rising to instant stardom after his victory in the competition, Liu continues to live a normal life at his own pace, practising piano three to four hours and swimming every day, and occasionally karting. For his part, Liu does not let the piano take over his life, partly due to his nature, and for fear that he would either get bored with a constant routine or lose his drive for competing and performing. "Even the way I talk right now in an interview makes me think about the way I phrase on piano, and all these ideas are always regenerated and renewed, so in this way I think the art that I'm doing is not dying."

Bruce Liu plays Chopin with Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Detail: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/BruceLiu_HKPhil

Chopin Winner plays Chopin—Bruce Liu Piano Recital

Detail: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/bruce_liu_piano_recital

The 51st Hong Kong Arts Festival appearance of Bruce Liu is supported by Consulate General of Canada in Hong Kong and Macau.