Bruce Liu, winner of the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, plays Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 in the competition’s final in October 2021. Wojciech Grzędziński
Liu Xiaoyu’s English name is Bruce Liu, which sounds similar to
kung fu superstar Bruce Lee’s name. The Chinese-Canadian won the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2021 at the age of 24, becoming the second pianist of Chinese origin to win the honor.
This year, he gave his first performance in China when he played at the 51st Hong Kong Arts Festival in February. It was his third trip to the special administrative region.
“I came (to Hong Kong) twice before when I was three and nine. I especially remember visiting Disneyland and Ocean Park when I was nine. I felt excited and dizzy after playing the Crazy Galleon at Ocean Park,” Liu said with a smile, referring to the “pirate ship ride” where the galleon rocks madly during its passage. He didn’t like eating at restaurants before, but he enjoyed Hong Kong’s delicious food this time.
He indicated his China tour, postponed for three years due to COVID-19, would resume in October 2023. He would play the compositions he played in Warsaw. “I’m very excited and looking forward to bringing Chopin’s music to the audience in Hong Kong as soon as possible,” he said.
Hong Kong has already been treated to some of it. In the February recital at the Hong Kong City Hall, Liu played Chopin’s Rondo à la Mazur in F Major, Op. 5, composed by the Polish maestro when he was just 16, and Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, both of which he had played in the Warsaw competition. In the second half of the concert he played French composer Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs and Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan. The deafening applause and cheering from the audience made him return to the stage three times to take a bow.
Some say Liu’s style is unique, with less romance but more clarity. The 25-year-old seeks to express his inner emotions directly.
Liu says if we still play the same music played 200 years ago, the way of playing would be undoubtedly different. Austrian composer Mozart created his music in an era of candles and horse-drawn carriage, but in the 21st century we have cars and iPads. “Your way of living is … connected with the way you play,” he said.
Bruce Liu receives the top award at the 18th International Chopin Piano Competition from Poland’s President Andrzej Duda at an awards gala in Warsaw on October 21, 2021. Wojciech Grzędziński
Secret of Success
The International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition started in 1927 to commemorate Chopin, arguably Poland’s greatest composer and pianist. Since 1955, it is held every five years and is known as the “Olympics of piano.” The participants have to be between 17 and 28 years.
The 18th edition, scheduled in 2020, had to be put off until October 2021, due to the pandemic. Over 500 pianists from across the world registered, but ultimately, only 87 of them participated. One of the largest contingents was from China – 22, while there were 16 from Poland, and 14 from Japan. Finally, they were whittled down to 12 finalists from 10 countries and Liu was the last to perform. He played Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, receiving a standing ovation after his passionate performance.
Finally, Liu won the first prize, which carried a purse of 40,000 euros (US $44,068). It was 21 years since a pianist of Chinese descent won the honor. Liu is also the fourth pianist of Asian origin to achieve that. His teacher, Vietnamese-Canadian pianist Dang Thai Son, was the first Asian to have that honor in 1980.
After his win, Liu said playing Chopin’s music in Warsaw was one of the best experiences.
Though he won the first place in the first three rounds and looked relaxed, he had actually started to pack and was mentally ready to go home after the second round. Winning the championship was a surprise. “I have never thought that I’m an interpreter of Chopin. I played many selections of modern music before, and that’s my strength to some extent.”
He says the secret of his success is “to focus on the things you’re doing and the details, not be distracted by other things.” Winning also involves an element of luck. “My teacher worried because the Chopin repertoire I played was neither distinctive nor common. I liked to add my own style to it. Usually, people have preconceptions about his repertoire, like (they denote) sadness and sorrow, but I play it in a happy style.”
With the victory, Liu rose to fame overnight. There were the obligatory press conferences and global tours ahead while after the tense competition, he just wanted to go home.
Bruce Liu performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Hong Kong conductor Wu Huaishi and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on February 16, 2023.
An Untypical Musician
Liu is regarded as an untypical musician because he never experienced the pressure or hardship that many do. Nor did he have to make any sacrifices. People who know his father attribute it to Liu senior’s philosophy: “Instead of seeking quick success, he hopes his son can have long-term development in music. Both are low-key, down-to-earth, and unperturbed.”
Liu’s parents are both from Beijing. They met each other when they were studying in France, and Liu was born in Paris. When he was a child, the family immigrated to Montreal, and he started to learn the piano, with an electric keyboard, when he was eight.
When he was 11, Liu started to participate in various piano competitions. At 15, he won the 2012 Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal Competition for piano and percussion. He thinks his multicultural background has a lot of influence on him. “Especially when learning classical music, one needs to know about different cultures. Those diverse cultures inspire my thinking ability and enable me to adjust to different things more quickly, in other words, to leave my so-called comfort zone.”
The Chinese culture has a great impact on him. Even though he didn’t grow up in China, he comes to Beijing during his summer and winter holidays. As a young boy he read China’s four great classics and Chinese martial art novelist Jin Yong’s works. “I have been deeply impressed by the chivalrous hero figures in martial art movies since I was a child. They are important factors behind my fertile imagination.” He stresses that playing the piano requires a focus on coordination, which is closely linked to sports.
When he studied at the Montreal Conservatory of Music, Liu was taught by Canadian pianist Richard Raymond and later by Dang Thai Son at the University of Montreal. He says about the latter, “He taught me a lot about how to become a good man. Music is not the only thing in an artist’s life.”
Liu boasts a rich playing experience. He has performed with the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the prominent American orchestras called the “Big Five,” the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Music has become the window for him to see and know the world.
Apart from playing the piano, Liu hopes to grow into a multifaceted artist. He is also interested in painting and other forms of art. He likes sports too, like karting and swimming. Right now, he finds it hard to say what he will do in a decade: “I will probably become a conductor and a composer; I may not even play the piano by then.”