Friday, March 30, 2018

All for love: a new orchestra sets out

The UK's newest orchestra is off on its inaugural tour on 13 April. The Pro Youth Philharmonia is the brainchild of flautist and conductor Wissam Boustany and takes in a collection of emerging musicians in their twenties and early thirties. The method, says Boustany, is a bit unusual - see logo above. I asked him to tell us more...

JD: Why is the Pro Youth Philharmonia different from other youth orchestras? Please tell us about its USPs?

WB: We are not out to be different just for its own sake… but we have set ourselves up as a training/youth/professional orchestra for emerging musicians aged 22-32 and will tour approximately three times per year. There are some very fine training and youth orchestras around, of course, but we have pinpointed quite a wide definition of ‘youth’ and ‘’professional’ for ourselves, and central to our ethos is my ‘Method Called Love’, a distillation of 30 years of teaching and performance as a flute soloist. I believe that Love elevates any deed into a transformative experience - both in the way the deed is executed and in the way it is perceived - and this in not addressed enough in institutional education and in the profession. This is what is going to light up our music as well as our audiences hearts, as well as the educational outreach programme that we are in the process of activating. 
Simple, but powerful.      

As a flute soloist born in Lebanon, I will be bringing a special focus on Middle Eastern composers and soloists, over the next years. We are bombarded with some much negativity about that part of the world - I would like to facilitate inspired links and develop cultural ties that nurture talent and build opportunities, goodwill and trust between the UK and that part of the world.

JD: How and why did the idea for it emerge?

WB: In 2015 I was invited to conduct Poulenc’s Piano Concerto “Aubade” at the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne. This proved to be a transformative experience for me and my wife Shermine encouraged me to pursue conducting seriously. It is all in the breathing… I have a connection my breathing is at the root of my playing and will be the foundation of my conducting. I have been studying with the astonishingly gifted conductor George Pehlivanian in Madrid (how stimulating and refreshing it has been, to study again, at age 57!!). 

This new focus on conducting has also brought up such vivid memories from my days with Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe - Claudio’s approach, the combination of his his soft-spoken nature yet devastatingly powerful conducting have left a deep mark on me… and I believe the secret to Claudio’s success was in the way he chose to work with young people through the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Mahler Youth Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe; this is how he built up his approach and his repertoire, and how he was able to preserve and nurture his musical and human passion.     

JD: How have you gone about turning the idea into reality?

WB: The simple answer: where love lives, so does empowerment and the Will to overcome.
I was lucky enough to meet Derek Warby, who had worked with EUYO and other orchestras. His knowledge and pragmatism, passion for music, understanding of the orchestral scene and the inner workings of the music industry have been invaluable. He is spearheading our campaign, as PYP fast  approaches its inaugural tour, as our Head of Marketing and Strategy (besides a lot more).

I also met Mathilde Agoustari when I performed with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra several years ago, when she was in charge of their Public Relations… Mathilde has been really instrumental in spreading the word about PYP, as our Head of PR/Communications and Outreach. 

I have been overwhelmed by the goodwill shown by many friends, supporters and colleagues, when they heard about the orchestra and the motivation behind it. Our Trustees Hussein Dbouk and Aleksander Szram, as well as  Nicky Goulder (Create Arts) have been a great source of information, advice and encouragement.

JD: What’s been the most challenging thing about creating it?…

WB: When a project like this is being born from scratch, you have zero reputation, so the tendency is for people to wait and see the result (or whether the project will happen at all) before they commit to supporting you, financially or otherwise. The risks of starting a venture like are enormous - financially, emotionally and creatively; but I have always taught my students that you learn in direct proportion to the risks you are prepared to take; so I am humbly walking the talk. 

Luckily, Derek Warby is by my side and has a great overview of the logistical challenges that we face every step of the way; this has helped us stay on track. After this first tour, organising subsequent projects will be much easier.
JD:...And the most exciting and rewarding thing?

Boustany and furry friend
WB: I have single-handedly auditioned every single musician (69 players on this inaugural tour). The human dimension of music, after all the hard and often lonely work, is very rewarding. I have been particularly proud of the auditions, because they were designed to be as empowering and conducive to creativity as possible. Candidates chose their own repertoire and improvisation was one of the key determining factors in revealing the inner potential of the musicians. 

On a personal level, I feel that my whole body and brain are undergoing a fundamental rewiring… for 35 years I have been channelling my creativity into my flute - I am now expanding and using my body and mind in a different way, to connect with people and the great symphonic repertoire, after having vowed never to play in an orchestra again, when I stood down from Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the mid 80’s. This whole process has woken me up and I even hold my old friend, the flute, with renewed love. 

JD: How did you choose the programme for the inaugural tour? It’s wonderfully challenging.
WB: Derek and I consulted on this.

The first choice was the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. What a feast of colour, folklore and internal revelations. Emerging from dark internal depths, Bartok reaches into the external world, putting expression to the 'people's voice', revealing so much colour, optimism, sensuality and humanity - not to mention the convulsions of Nature. And what brilliant orchestration, giving each individual instrument it's voice and character, while allowing a cohesive universality to take root. 

I also love the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 2 and am delighted that Stephanie Gonley will be our soloist… I am  seeing so many similarities with his great flute sonata. What an enigmatic combination of threat, wit, virtuosity, scintillating rhythm and utterly clever orchestration. He seems to know exactly what emotional symbolism each single instrument carries with it, which brings such colour and character to his music.

I was immediately fascinated with James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie when I heard it and thought it would balance well with the other works. MacMillan’s chosen theme of the witch-hunt, although relating to historic Scottish events, is something that I think is very relevant to our lives today, as there is always some sort of ongoing witch hunt happening in the media… it seems to be a national sport, to isolate and prey on people who don’t fit with the established and accepted norms of society.  

JD: Where will it go from here - and where would you like it to go eventually?

WB: I need to start reaching out to composers and soloists from the Middle East, and to approach the big movers and shakers to support these projects. 

I also look forward to planning our first full season of tours for  2019 and beyond. We are conceived as a touring orchestra, so I really want to develop these within the the UK and abroad. Once the next tours are set up, I will want to consolidate our educational outreach programme, so that our “Method Called Love” can run rampant among school children, while involving our PYP members in this important dimension of what the orchestra does. We plan to initiate Art & Poetry Competitions in school, so that schoolchildren can voice their feelings about the state of our world - these poems will be recited in our concerts and the paintings will become the artwork for our poster campaigns. 

JD: What is the message you want it to bring to us all?
May love prevail.

The Pro Youth Philharmonia's inaugural tour begins on 13 April at Cadogan Hall, London, then goes to the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford (14 April) and Victoria Hall, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent (15 April). More details here.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Children of the Stars

"There is no boundary of difference... different skin, different religion, or different culture - we are all children of the stars."

Here's a fascinating interview with the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who has a major European premiere in London next week under the auspices of the Philharmonia Orchestra. She talks about her studies with György Ligeti ("He opened my eyes and my mind"), her compositional processes ("I need 3-4 years to get the idea clear") and the blend of science and art that has gone into this huge new work. She collected 150 poems first and finally selected 12-13 variously about the birth of the universe, humanity and eternity.

The resulting different songs/movements span centuries and continents, all of them exploring the idea that we are, essentially and all of us, the substance that comes from a star. Chin says here that she reads about astronomy every day and that it brings her "hope in this world". It's an optimistic work. "My dream is to perform this piece with mixed north and south Korean boys' choir - I don't know if it will be possible, but I have hope."

Is it the Big Bang? "Not that big," Chin smiles, "but I wanted to create...a very big sound with lots of power..."

Unsuk Chin's Le chant des Infants des Etoiles (The Song of the Children of the Stars) receives its European premiere on 15 April at the Royal Festival Hall, with the Philharmonia, the Philharmonia Voices and Trinity Boys Choir conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Tickets here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

And a nice long draught from the Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Samantha Hankey, winner of the Glyndebourne Opera Cup, with Dame Janet Baker
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

You've heard about the journey home, so now here is a view from the inside on the Thing Itself, i.e. the brand-new Glyndebourne Opera Cup. I've written about it for The Arts Desk and you can find it here:


I was on a panel of six critics convened to choose the winner of a special ‘media award’ at the Glyndebourne Opera Cup on Saturday evening. What follows is therefore not a review, but rather a chance to chew over the concept and its highs and occasional lows. And you may be intrigued to hear that our panel and the main jury picked the exact same top three winners.

From its first season in 1934, Glyndebourne has been inextricably associated with the music of Mozart. Having decided to devote every edition of its new contest to the works of just one composer, Wolfgang Amadeus was therefore the natural choice for the inaugural event. Mozart suits young voices, as the competition’s founder, ex-Glyndebourne CEO Sebastian Schwarz, pointed out (all the finalists were aged 21-28). But also, as any professional musician will tell you, his music is the ultimate challenge. There’s nowhere to hide. His writing is so streamlined, precise and exposed that if performers are able to draw out its subtle shadings of meaning, with gorgeous tone and sincere emotional expression, you know about it fast. And if they don’t, you know about that too. It’s magic hidden in a minefield...

Read the rest here (£).

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Monday, March 26, 2018

Many a slip 'twixt opera cup, East Croydon

On Saturday night I was honoured to be a member of a media panel, six critics convened to select the winner of a special award in the Glyndebourne Opera Cup. It was a wonderful event, and nice to see the gardens in early spring for a change, full of daffodils and primroses. Describing us and our task, presenter Chris Addison quipped: "That must be a fun room." You better believe it, buster - we were tucking into our sandwiches very happily, and reached exactly the same conclusion as the chief jury, but in a fraction of the time. We gave our media prize to the lovely American mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, who also emerged with overall first prize. I'm writing a full account of the evening at the moment and will post a link as soon as it goes live. 

What follows now is what followed.

Unfortunately Southern Trains had decided to do weekend engineering works that day, so the Lewes line was closed south of Three Bridges. The press office kindly agreed to provide the five of us who needed transport with a large taxi to and from Three Bridges station. 

Coming back afterwards, large taxi is late, but eventually turns up driven by cheerful if charmingly dim cabby, who treats us to a CD of Christian devotional songs from the 1970s twice through. After three hours of unadulterated Mozart, it's briefly refreshing; we could, of course, use some silence, but politely do not object. At some point the critic of the Financial Times notes quietly: "This journey feels longer than the one on the way down, doesn't it?" 

He's not wrong. "Oh," says cabby, "I missed the turning. Sorry 'bout that..." We go round a roundabout in a concrete wasteland for a second time, take a bumbly right turn across a carriageway on which a maniac is speeding towards us at what looks like 95mph, and pull up outside...Crawley station. But we don't want Crawley - the trains crawl. We want Three Bridges, whence trains go lickety-split to Victoria via Clapham Junction, and it's very nearby. Indeed, it's round the corner. There were signposts to it. Cheerful cabby can't find it. "Uh, that's where the satnav sent me... Dunno why I did that... I think it's just down here, let's go round this roundabout again." 

We do. We turn right. "Oh whoops, I think this was the wrong one..." - and, boing, we're back on the M23, with no turnoff before Gatwick, 'Amazing Grace' blaring out. One of us suggests going to Gatwick instead - it's only a mile away and there are more trains. We head for Gatwick... find that the motorway exit, bless its cotton socks, is closed for roadworks. There isn't another for many miles. The deputy editor of Opera Magazine discovers on Google Maps that it will now take 26 minutes to get to Gatwick, despite it being 1 mile away, and it's only 3 mins longer to drive to East Croydon... 

Cheerful cabby, eye on meter, agrees to take us to the latter, as we can't turn round now in any case. A few miles up the A23 by a traffic light, there's a sign to Coulsdon station. Taxi screeches to halt: "Is it that station you mean?" No. The name's Croydon. East Croydon. 

We trundle through the backwoods of Surrey, which are quite extensive, to South Croydon. "Is it that station there?" No. That one's South Croydon. It's only just down the road from....

Full credit to the deputy arts editor of The Times, who is in the front seat, asserts his authority, finds the right turnoff and navigates us safely to East Croydon at long last.

Moral: never underestimate a bunch of music critics. And if your cabby puts on a playlist of devotional songs from the 1970s, exit the cab at once. Don't wait. Run. 

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

"Hello? LSO here. Can you conduct us today?"

One conductor's plane delayed in a snowstorm is another's....opportunity. Not that the snow helps. Last Sunday George Jackson was home and looking forward to a well-earned day off when all of a sudden the phone rang. Next thing he knew, he was dealing with a clutch of brand-new scores, cancelled Ubers and a banana case...

George Jackson faces the music
Photo: Brian Hatton

A guest post by George Jackson

Sunday morning.  It’s 6:30, and for some reason, I am wide awake. 

I have just spent a week on tour with the Orchestre de Paris, where I have been Daniel Harding’s assistant: Cologne, Dortmund, Luxembourg, and Brussels.  The week before that, my first Schumann Symphony No.4 with the Transylvanian Philharmonic in Cluj; the week before that, the first leg of the OdP tour, at ‘home’ in Paris, and then in Vienna.

I was grateful for my first full day off in three weeks: Sunday lunch planned with a couple of schoolmates, followed by the new Ricky Gervais show on Netflix.  Bliss!

I manage to doze back off at around 7:30am, but was woken by my phone ringing at 8:21am.  Unusual, I thought, for a Sunday morning…

The previous day, I'd had the pleasure of conducting the premiere of Jasmin Kent Rodgman’s ‘The Letter’ at LSO St Luke’s, as part of the Barbican’s ‘Open Ear’ Festival.  A Jerwood Foundation composer, Jasmin curated an inspiring afternoon featuring performances by the best of London’s spoken word community, culminating in the premiere of her own piece with Salena Godden’s poetry and a quartet of LSO musicians. During the break, I had jokingly quipped to a colleague: ‘Let’s hope Francois-Xavier Roth’s plane takes off tomorrow morning...’.  One of the LSO St. Luke’s plasma screens was advertising Sunday’s Panufnik Composers’ Workshop, where eight brand-new pieces would be publicly workshopped with the orchestra.

As my ringtone echoed into the slumber, I realized how cold it was.  Which means snow.  Which in the UK (and, incidentally, Frankfurt) means travel chaos… 

I answered about three octaves lower than usual.  Natalia, the LSO’s artist development associate projects manager, greeted me with her chirpy and friendly tone (she had managed the Jerwood project too).  ‘Morning George!  It’s Natalia at the LSO.  Francois-Xavier’s plane has been temporarily grounded in Frankfurt.  Do you fancy coming in and starting the session this morning?  How far away are you?  Can you get here?’  

The slow-motion realisation of what this meant dawned upon me: the chance to spend the morning with one of the world’s finest orchestras, conducting music by the most talented young composers in the UK.  ‘Yes. I’m at home in Hanwell. Can you email me pdfs of the scores? What’s the dress code?’

I scramble around: batons are still in my bag from yesterday; I throw on the only non-creased shirt I can find, some jeans, the nearest shoes.  I make an espresso, but then ignore it, since the adrenaline buzz is already doing the coffee’s work.  An Uber is ordered: ‘Driver completing journey nearby’.  It could take up to 18 minutes…..

I risk it, thinking that if the Uber arrives at 9am, with a 40-minute drive to Old Street, I should have a little bit of time to run through the PDFs at the piano at home, before looking at hard copies in the conductor’s room. 


Sunnier times in Bolzano...

At 8:50am, Uber cancels the order – there are no drivers available. 

I call two minicab companies with no luck.  The third one answers and can send a car in 15 minutes.  9:05, so I should get to Old Street at 9:45.  Great.

I attempt to find some last-minute sustenance, and eat all that I can find in the house: a square of Dairy Milk, three Jacobs’ cream crackers and two Trebor mints.  I call Natalia: ‘Please can you leave a banana in the conductor’s room?’  I am incredibly grateful for this later on.

The taxi driver clearly thinks I am mad.  I tell him that it is an emergency, and can he race through London (he agrees, and does a wonderful job).  I spend the next 40 minutes roughly ‘conducting’ my way through the scores, metronome app open in one hand.  Yes, he thinks I am mad.  No time to think about that.

I am now informed that Francois-Xavier’s ETA is 11:15am, which means I will definitely be working on the first two pieces of the day: Grace-Evangeline Mason’s Beneath the Silken Silence and Han Xu’s Buddha Holds the Flower.  I focus on these two, identify a list of questions for each composer, and make sure I can at least work my way through any tempo and metrical changes.  Does ‘the new minim is the previous crotchet’ mean that I should just stay in 2?  Those sorts of questions.  The things that Simon Rattle likes to call ‘dental hygiene’.

We arrive at the Old Street roundabout.  The friendly driver, for some reason, misses the turn off for St. Luke’s, so we have another go round the roundabout.  Just to keep the adrenaline running.

I race out the car, get to the conductor’s room, and thank Natalia for the banana - which comes in a rather dashing banana-shaped plastic case.  The scores are there, and I race through, underlining, highlighting, making notes.

I have a couple of very welcome visitors to the conductor’s room before we start.  The LSO’s managing director, Kathryn McDowell, says a friendly hello and wishes me luck, and Colin Matthews, who is mentoring the composers, pops in for a quick chat: he gives me a few invaluable bits of advice about the two pieces, and describes how the workshop will run, as a form of public conversation between myself on the podium, principal second violin David Alberman, and the composer in the hot seat.

At 9:59am, the orchestral manager knocks on the door.

Time to go and face the music….

Winner of the 2015 Aspen Conducting Prize, London-born conductor George Jackson came to attention after stepping in at short notice with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducting the Austrian premiere of Michael Jarrell’s Ombres. Highlights in 2018 include his company debut in Opera Holland Park’s new production of Così Fan Tutte. Recent and forthcoming highlights include his Hamburg State Opera debut conducting the premiere of Immer weiter by Irene Galindo Quero and Jesse Boekman, and concerts with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and the Haydn Orchestra di Bolzano e Trento.
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Monday, March 19, 2018

JDCMB Celebrity Interview: Meet George Li

A year ago I went to Hamburg to meet and hear the brilliant young Chinese-American pianist George Li. Tomorrow he's giving his first recital in the International Piano Series of the Southbank Centre - still at St John's Smith Square (the Queen Elizabeth Hall reopens in April) - and I'll be doing a pre-concert talk with him beforehand. Do come along if you can!

Here is the article I wrote about him after the Hamburg interview, reproduced here by kind permission of PIANIST Magazine (and edited slightly now for updating).

George Li: plenty to smile about.
Photo: Simon Fowler

One of the great misconceptions about music competitions is that a performer only benefits by winning first prize. But many of these events offer young players, whether or not they emerge triumphant, an exceptional platform to be heard by an audience that, with the advent of Internet live streaming, can nowadays run to millions. Moreover, those who win other prizes or simply catch the right person’s attention can find themselves fortunate enough to have a vital launching pad.

George Li won silver medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015, when he was all of 19. The youthful Chinese American pianist from Boston quickly captured the imagination of a representative from the artists’ management firm Intermusica; a contract followed. Now he has another contract, this time with Warner Classics, which has signed him up for two recital discs and two with orchestra.

I caught up with the unassuming and highly intelligent young musician in Hamburg, where he was making his debut at the shiny new Elbphilharmonie with the Hamburg Philharmonic, playing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for the first time. On stage his diminutive figure gives the illusion that he could still be a schoolboy – but when he starts to play, it’s another matter altogether. His musicianship is informed by a fulsome emotional world, sensitivity to drama, directness of expression and distinctive beauty of tone that together conspire to give him a strong personal voice at the instrument.

His passion for communicative music-making, he says, struck him in earnest when he first performed a Beethoven concerto with orchestra in his early teens. “All of a sudden I felt like I had entered a different world,” he says. “It was a unique and amazing experience: for the first time I was feeling music a lot more emotionally, rather than just remembering the right notes and where to come in. Afterwards people were coming up to me and saying that listening to me had changed their lives. I was shocked. I didn’t know before that music had that kind of power. After that, I just wanted to be able to find that feeling again.”

George, aged 11, plays Liszt...[this is SO CUTE - he can only just reach the pedals, but plays like a total pro...]

Born in Boston to parents who had each immigrated to the US from China, Li is the second of three musical children. His younger brother, Andrew, is also a gifted pianist, he reports; and their elder sister started piano lessons first, which spurred on the small George to try it too. “Neither of our parents is a musician,” he says. “They grew up during the Cultural Revolution and never had those opportunities.” His father is a scientist, his mother an accountant, but there was always music around: Li’s early musical memories include being taken to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the city’s series of celebrity recitals, “pianists like Evgeny Kissin and Murray Perahia, who really inspired me a lot. And I remember that right before I went to bed Mom used to turn on the classical radio station. All those elements nudged me in that direction.”

He soon became a seasoned competition participant, having taken part in local contests since the tender age of six. “It was something a lot of Asian kids who play piano used to do,” he remarks. “Every year they’d just try and see how they got on in competitions, as an incentive to learn repertoire and push yourself a little further. I did that for three or four years and then took it to another level.”

When he was 16, he was amazed to win an award from the Gilmore Foundation, which in addition to its more famous surprise-prize for established artists also selects young pianists to support. Li was its youngest winner to date. “It’s a really prestigious award and I had no idea because it’s anonymous – they don’t tell you anything until you get a phone call,” he recalls. “I was in Europe at 2am when I got the call and I was in shock – I was, like, ‘Wait, what did I win?’ It was very helpful because it’s a big cash award and you can use it for whatever you want, so it helped me save to get a new piano and set up a website. I also played some concerts at the Gilmore Festival [in Kalamazoo, Michigan], which is a really great place – people there are so warm and it’s a great atmosphere.”

Photo: Simon Fowler
A similarly life-changing event was the Young Concert Artists Competition, which he won in 2010; the organisation then managed his early career for three years. “They really helped me to jump-start the performance lifestyle, building confidence and some kind of experience with how that synergy and chemistry with the audience works,” he says. This helped him to lay the foundations of a burgeoning career. He entered competition after competition and soon prize heaped upon prize: second at the Gina Bachauer prize in 2010, the Tabor Foundation Piano Award at the Verbier Festival 2012, first prize at the Grand Prix Animato Piano Competition in Paris in 2014 – and plenty more. Therefore when he went to Russia for the Tchaikovsky Competition, he was effectively an old-timer.

The Tchaikovsky Competition proved beyond his wildest dreams – see the box-out – but since then he has scarcely had a chance to look back. He is particularly thrilled about making his first CD for Warner Classics. “It’s a huge thing, recording a CD and having it released, when there are so many recordings around. I’m so lucky!” he remarks. Recorded live in concert in the Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg, it should hit the shelves this autumn. The programme offers a distinctly unusual mix of repertoire, from Haydn through Chopin and Rachmaninoff to Liszt – but there is, Li says, method to the apparent madness.

“It takes the listener on a journey,” he suggests. “The Haydn is elegant, but also has a rather sorrowful element. That leads into the Chopin B flat minor ‘Funeral March’ Sonata: a very tragic piece which holds the entire spectrum of aching loss. That goes further with the Rachmaninoff Corelli Variations, a piece that is very special to me: it definitely explores that darker area and plunges you towards so much variety in shading, darkness and colouring of that feeling, and of course the ending is heartbreaking. It’s like a swansong. At the end you’re surrounded by despair, like a feeling from Dostoyevsky. But then the Liszt Consolation No.3 and Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 bring you back and lift you up from that depression. It takes you on a journey from darkness to light, from death to resurrection – that’s the motif I’ve envisaged.”

The reference to Dostoyevsky is no coincidence. Li is currently combining his meteoric career with studies not only musical but also academic, taking a joint course between Harvard University and the New England Conservatory. “I’m studying English Literature at Harvard, which is great,” he says. “It helps me make music because music and literature are so intertwined with each other, being able to experience different emotions and feelings through different mediums. Understanding how writers express themselves through words is helpful to understanding how composers express themselves through music.”

His special literary enthusiasms include English Romantic poetry, especially Wordsworth; novels by Dostoyevsky and James Joyce; and Shakespeare, which he says has proved a revelation. Not that the mix of study and musical career is easy. “It’s been hard because I travel a lot, and it’s hard to settle in, then leave and come back and have all this work to do,” he acknowledges, “but it’s wonderful to be in class with so many people who are brilliant in their own ways and to learn from them and the teachers.”

Tchaikovsky Competition Winners' Concert....with Gergiev and his toothpick

As for his mentors at the piano, he counts among them Russell Sherman and his wife Wha Kyung Byun. “In general, I’ve been so lucky to have the right teachers at the right times,” he says. “I studied first with a Chinese piano teacher, Dorothy Shi, who really worked on my technical foundation, building up a good, singing kind of sound, so that helped with a sound foundation that I could build upon musically. Then I studied for three years with the Chinese pianist Chengzong Yin, who won the silver medal of the Tchaikovsky Competition the same year Ashkenazy and John Ogdon won joint first. He really helped further the singing sound and deepened the musical side. Miss Byun and Mr Sherman have helped to push me as a person and as a human being and to refine my musicianship. I’m very grateful to them all and I’m still learning from them today. It’s great to have a teacher who can nudge you in the right direction if you’re straying too much towards impulsiveness and shift you back to not going overboard with  extremes.”

He admits he has learned some career lessons the hard way. “The travel schedule was quite jarring at first, even until two or three months ago,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of crazy things. In December [2016] I went to China for 24 hours; I’d played a concert in St Petersburg a couple of days before and then immediately flew to Miami for a concert, and the travelling was just too much for me and I got sick and I still had to play two concerts after that. That was a rough period.”

Unwinding, then? Rather unusually for a musician, Li is a sports fanatic, especially where soccer is concerned. “I’m an Arsenal fan,” he declares, “though unfortunately they haven’t been doing so well recently!” [this was in March 2017- ed]. He enjoys playing soccer himself, when time allows, the big advantage being that the sport is limited to footwork: “I can’t play basketball or baseball because of my hands,” Li says, “but with soccer it’s much more feasible to spend an hour now and then kicking the ball around with friends. Exercise is really important to keep fit and relieve stress,” he adds earnestly.

Li has already been in Britain this season, playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.2 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall, and is making his recital debut in the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series at the Southbank Centre on 20 March 2018, including some repertoire from his new CD. Meanwhile, he has been enjoying trips to the Verbier Festival, Seattle, Sweden and plenty more performances around Europe. “There’s a lot of great things coming up,” Li beams. That is putting it mildly.

Liszt's Gnomenreigen, live in concert at Verbier, summer 2017


“The Tchaikovsky Competition is a great platform to show who you are and what you can bring towards music. And being in that Russian culture for a month, you can see how much people there appreciate music. For them it’s like the musical Olympics: they really love hearing you play and you can feel their appreciation. That takes away some of the pressure and the stress: when you enter, you see in the first few rows the jury sitting there being stern and strict – but behind them, people with shining eyes.

“It was a long month with a lot of pressure, but also I had a great time. Of course the competition pressures were always there, but it was a special month. For three weeks I was just living in my hotel and the conservatory, practising. In the final, fortunately I played on the first day, so I was exhausted, but had time before the verdict was announced to go sightseeing, relax and play a little soccer.

“I hadn’t expected to advance so far, so I was in shock to get second prize. We didn’t have any idea in advance of the results, so the announcement was very tension-filled. The finals were such a marathon, emotionally, spiritually and mentally, because it’s two back-to-back concerti with only a few minutes in between, so after finishing I felt completely drained. But then seeing people come up and say how powerful it was and how much it affected them – going back to the power of music and how much it can affect the emotions – that really stayed with me. It’s always been a dream to share how I feel about music with as many people as possible. So being there in Moscow was a sublime feeling.”


If you could play only one piece from now on, what would it be?
For a solo piece, either Beethoven’s Sonata Op.111 or the Schubert B flat major Sonata D960. For a concerto, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – it’s so much fun!

If you could play only the music of one composer from now on, who would it be?

One pianist you’d travel long and far to hear?
Vladimir Horowitz.

One concert hall you’d like to play in?
The Elbphilharmonie or the Concertgebouw.

Any technical troubles?
I have rather small hands, so Rachmaninoff passagework can be difficult.

What advice would you give to an amateur pianist about how to improve?
Experiment with the potential of what the piano can do. It’s an orchestra in one instrument and based on that we can create so many different kinds of sounds and different worlds. And work on singing tone – it’s always the hardest thing, but something we’re constantly striving for.

If you weren’t a pianist, what would you be?
I would really love to work in English literature. I love analysing things and going deep into the texts.

One person you’d love to play for?
The Pope. I’m not religious, but I love the spiritual vibe of cathedrals.

A composer you’re not ready for?
Beethoven, though see above!

What other kind of music do you like listening to?
I listen to pop music now and then.