Chopin Competition Prize Winner Bruce Liu Awes La Jolla Audience with Solo Recital at The Conrad

Bruce Liu brought the La Jolla Music Society’s 2023-2024 piano series to a triumphant finale Friday at The Conrad. The 27-year-old Canadian virtuoso combined breathtaking technical prowess with a depth of personal interpretation that kept the sold-out audience at the edge of their seats the entire evening. At least until until Liu’s closing cadence of each piece, which elicited an authentic standing ovation from the sold-out house. And by authentic standing ovation, I mean when everyone immediately rises to their feet—not the typical sloppy San Diego standing ovation where a few people stand at the end of the piece while gradually the rest of the audience stands up because someone in front of them is blocking their view of the stage.

Bruce Liu [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

Opening his program with Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, Hob.XVI:32, Liu only hinted at the fireworks soon to come. Harmonically adventurous for its time, Haydn’s B Minor Sonata is nevertheless a well-mannered musical offering in the accepted Classical style, communicated suavely by Liu’s immaculate, light touch, fleet runs, and expressive themes.

But when Liu launched into Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, we experienced the passionate command that won him the First Prize in the 2021 Chopin International Competition in Warsaw. His account of the Sonata’s first movement proved orchestral in its scope, relentlessly building rhapsodic climaxes, gliding effortlessly through the composer’s quicksilver mood changes—running the gamut from grandiose to mystical—and evoking thrilling emotional turbulence without igniting the slightest fear that this joyride would fly off the wheels.

Chopin’s “Scherzo” movement requires parallel maneuvers to navigate the extremes of its bristling, driving opening theme and its dreamy cantabile reverie, a challenge Liu adroitly surmounted. And who doesn’t recognize the third movement’s “Funeral March,” which Liu delivered with an aptly hushed sense of mystery? Of course, the third movement is much more than the simple march, and Liu developed its melodic riches with rewarding dramatic insight. Liu’s account of the rollicking octave triplet figurations of the “Presto” finale brought him across the finish line with a fervor that quickly brought the entire audience to its feet!

Bruce Liu [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

No doubt some pianists would send their audience off to the intermission after the excitement of this Chopin Sonata, but Liu kept his audience in the hall to offer a stunning chaser in a radically contrasting style, Nikolai Kapustin’s Variations, Op. 41. Little known in the West, Kapustin was a mid-20th century Soviet composer who successfully fused American straight-ahead jazz with Soviet modernism. Think Dmitri Shostakovich meets Art Tatum, and you will have an idea of Kapustin’s style. It is easy to find online videos of the late Kapustin performing his own piano compositions, and he takes his Variations at an assured, comfortable tempo. By significantly increasing the tempo, Liu turned the Variations into a splashy finale for his first half.

Liu offered his own six-movement Suite of harpsichord solos by the French Baroque master Jean-Philippe Rameau, a charming assemblage of dance movements and character sketches that Liu garnished with profuse but stylish ornamentation in his piano transcription. One of Rameau’s clever character sketches, “Les Sauvages,” was based on a tribal dance the composer observed enacted by two Louisiana Indians at a Parisian theatre in 1725.

Serious pianists agree that Sergei Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 83, is one of the most daunting piano solos of the 20th Century. Liu clearly relished—and vanquished—every technical challenge the three-movement Sonata threw his way. Blazing tempos and astonishing clarity marked Liu’s presentation of the outer movements, yet his middle movement, which the composer marked “Andante caloroso,” sounded like a sweetly nostalgic aria.

Encouraged by the rapturous response of the La Jolla audience, Liu provided four encores: J. S. Bach’s “Allemande” from the G Major French Suite; Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Four Swans” from his ballet Swan Lake (Earl Wild’s arrangement); Paganini’s “La Campanella” in the Franz Liszt arrangement, and Robert Schumann’s “Of Foreign Lands and People” from his piano suite Kinderszenen.

This recital was presented by the La Jolla Music Society in the organization’s La Jolla home, the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, on May 31, 2024.

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