George Li's 'Sensible Route' To Piano Prominence

Feb 21, 2018
Originally published on February 21, 2018 8:35 am

George Li is a young pianist on the rise. At age 10, he gave his first public concert and at 15, he won a silver medal at the revered Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Li recently released his debut album on a major label and has been fielding offers, performing with some of the world's great orchestras.

Li is 22 now, and he tells me how his day started out. With a kind of self-confident nonchalance, he sounds like a typical college student.

"I got up, I guess, at around nine o'clock and then I went to class," he says. "It's an English class on gender and representation."

Wait a minute. An English class when you've got a career as a concert pianist?

"I think the most sensible route would have been for me to go to a conservatory somewhere," Li admits. "But I really believed that I wanted a well-rounded education." And that's where taking English classes comes in.

"At one point it kind of dawned upon me how close music and literature are together," he says. "So it's helped me understand music even deeper." Li is enrolled in a hybrid program between Harvard University and the New England Conservatory.

The centerpiece of Li's album is the passionate Piano Sonata No. 2 by Chopin – the one with the haunting funeral march as its third movement. Chopin is close to Li's heart, as it was Chopin's music that earned him the top prize at the Cooper Competition at Oberlin Conservatory when he was just 14.

As we talk, I surprise Li with a little tape of his final round victory performance.

"I can't even find that performance myself," He chuckles. But Li isn't laughing while we listen to him burn through the closing pages of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. It ends with uproarious applause.

"Yeah, I mean it was a very energetic performance, but I definitely feel differently about how I approach the piece now," Li admits, cringing with a little embarrassment. "I would be more refined if I played it now."

But there's no cringing from critics when they hear George Li play. They're calling him "a major talent." One thing that sets him apart is that for all his "mesmerizing technique" he's not just an empty showman. His mind, they note, is well attuned to the nuances of the score.

Li's album, Live at the Mariinsky, released last fall on Warner Classics, opens with the Sonata in B minor by Haydn. Li's subtle touch makes the music sparkle.

"I think the main requirement is the touch. It has to be so sensitive," he says about Haydn. "Imagine the image of champagne bubbles, or just that sound when the champagne pours into the glass."

Li was born near Boston. His parents came to the U.S. from China in the 1980s. He says they had few opportunities to hear classical music growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Li began playing piano at age four and thought of it only as a hobby. But one day, when he was 11, playing Beethoven's First Piano Concerto, everything changed.

"All of a sudden, in the middle of the performance I felt different," he recalls. "I was kind of transported in some other reality. And I felt all these emotions within the piece and within myself." And that's when Li's light bulb switched on.

"After that moment I wanted to do this for the rest of my life."

Fortunately for George Li fans, that's likely to be a very long time.

George Li is one of the new Slingshot artists — emerging talent, handpicked by public radio stations and NPR.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF LISZT'S HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY NO. 2)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're hearing a performance by George Li, an artist to keep an ear on. He gave his first public concert at age 10. He received a silver medal in a famed Russian competition at 15. And now the still-young pianist performs with some of the world's great orchestras. Here's NPR's Tom Huizenga.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: George Li is 22 years old now, and he sounds like a typical college student.

GEORGE LI: I got up, I guess, at around 9 o'clock, and then I went to class. It was an English class on gender and representation.

HUIZENGA: Wait a minute - an English class when you've got a career as a concert pianist? George Li, who studies at Harvard, likes to chart his own path.

LI: At one point, it kind of dawned upon me how close music and literature are together. And so it's kind of helped me understand music even deeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF CHOPIN'S PIANO SONATA NO. 2 IN B-FLAT MINOR)

HUIZENGA: From George Li's debut album, that's a sonata by Chopin, a composer close to Li's heart. It was Chopin's music that earned Li the top prize at the Cooper Competition at Oberlin Conservatory when he was just 14. I surprised him with a little tape from that final round victory performance.

LI: I can't even find that performance myself (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF CHOPIN'S PIANO SONATA NO. 2 IN B-FLAT MINOR)

LI: (Laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

LI: Yeah. I mean, it definitely was a very energetic performance. I definitely feel differently how I approach the piece now.

HUIZENGA: How would you approach it differently now?

LI: Probably more refined if I played it now (laughter). And for me, I just had, like, a couple minutes of cringing just now. But it was good.

HUIZENGA: But there's no cringing from critics when they hear George Li play. They're calling him a major talent. One thing that sets him apart is that for all of his, quote, "mesmerizing technique," he's not just an empty showman. His mind, they note, is well-attuned to the nuances of the score. Li's album, released last fall, opens with a sonata by Haydn, and his subtle touch makes the music sparkle.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF HAYDN'S PIANO SONATA IN B MINOR, HOB. XVI:32)

LI: Imagine, like, the image of champagne bubbles or just that sound when, like, champagne pours into the glass like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF HAYDN'S PIANO SONATA IN B MINOR, HOB. XVI:32)

HUIZENGA: George Li was born near Boston. His parents came to the U.S. from China in the 1980s. They had few opportunities to hear classical music growing up in the Cultural Revolution. Li began playing the piano at age 4 and thought of it only as a hobby. But one day when he was 11, a Beethoven piano concerto changed everything.

LI: All of a sudden, like, in the middle of the performance, I felt different. I was kind of transported in some other reality. And I felt all these emotions within the piece and within myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S PIANO SONATA NO. 6 IN F MAJOR)

LI: After that moment, I was like - wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

HUIZENGA: And fortunately for George Li fans, that's likely to be a very long time.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF LISZT'S HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY NO. 2)

INSKEEP: NPR Music is featuring exceptional up-and-coming artists for a feature called Slingshot, and George Li is one of them. Learn more about Slingshot artists at nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.