Pianist Bruce Liu on how his life changed after winning the Chopin competition

The Chinese-Canadian pianist will make his Arab world debut in Abu Dhabi

Bruce Liu during a 2022 concert at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw.  EPA
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There are some things you simply can't learn in the classroom.

This is a realisation that has grown on Chinese-Canadian pianist Bruce Liu, 25, since winning the 18th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in 2021.

Since that night in Warsaw he has been engaged in a marathon world tour, performing in concert halls from Milan to Seoul.

“This is the first time I am doing an interview from the back of a car,” he tells The National, while he is whisked to the next venue on his sold-out South Korean tour.

Liu’s next stop is the UAE for his Middle East concert debut as part of Abu Dhabi Festival on Tuesday.

"You know at some level that if you win the competition your life will change," he says.

“And ever since I started playing the piano as a child I wanted to have this career where I can play to people from around the world, but I never actually imagined what this career would actually look like."

Now that he has it, what has been the biggest insight?

"Fifty per cent of your time is spent actually learning the business. This is an aspect that many artists really can't afford to avoid " he says.

"Ideally, we do want to stay in our own world in order to make the music as pure as possible.

“But you have to also deal with contracts and people, like directors and presenters. These are things you are never taught in school."

That said, those hours spent studying have well and truly paid off.

Artur Szklener, director of the Frederic Chopin Institute, which administers the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition, reportedly praised Liu's "revelatory performances" throughout the intensive three-week competition.

Those attending his recital at the Arts Centre in NYU Abu Dhabi will experience some of that skill with Liu's repertoire including Chopin's Piano Sonata No 2 and Variations on "La ci darem la mano".

"What's special about Chopin, and why his music really stands the test of time, is that he is one of the few composers who wrote only for piano," Liu says.

"The music is also very approachable to a general audience because there is an ease and elegance to the melodies."

Soothing a restless mind

The Polish composer’s work has featured in Liu’s repertoire since learning to play the piano from the age of eight.

Born to Chinese parents in Paris before relocating to Montreal as a child, Liu recalled taking to the instrument as a way to stimulate an already restless mind.

"It started out really as a pure hobby because I was really active when I was younger. I would play plenty of sports and then play video games. So starting on the electric keyboard was just another thing I wanted to do," he says.

"The funny thing is that once I really started getting into it, which was a gradual process, I realised how it kept me calm.

“As someone who was always moving around, those 10 to 15 minutes of just playing really affected me. It began with no real intention and it just grew from there."

Under the tutelage of Vietnamese-Canadian classical pianist Dang Thai Son, the first pianist from Asia to win the Chopin piano competition in 1980, Liu went on to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra aged 15, before collaborating with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and the Grammy Award winning Orchestra of the Americas.

By the time he appeared in the Chopin competition in 2021, he was an already assured performer and became the only contestant to sweep through all three rounds of the competition by the jury's unanimous consent.

Liu says he doesn’t fully recall the moment he won the competition after a particularly gruelling take of Piano Concerto No 1.

“When you wait for your name to be called, it just felt like a blur,” he says.

“I think it was about 10 seconds but I just remember that everything at that moment felt black and white.”

Keeping it real

Those moments have been captured in sound and vision with the final round officially available to stream on YouTube and select pieces packaged in the live album Bruce Liu – Winner of the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition 2021.

While a time will come where Liu would want to on move from being only associated with the prize, he says he is content to enjoy the moment — no matter how intense his life seems at the moment.

"It is wonderful that this magical moment has been captured and it is something that I look forward to, maybe when I am hopefully 80 years old to go back and just enjoy it for what it is," he says.

"But for now I am just happy to keep learning, experiencing new things and get some more wisdom. I hope to keep the sincerity and honesty in the music and not get too influenced by other factors.”

Bruce Liu performs at The Arts Centre, NYU Abu Dhabi on March 14; from 7.15pm;. tickets are Dh52.50; www.abudhabifestival.ae

Updated: March 11, 2023, 2:42 PM