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.