And also watch his performance from the 2017 Verbier Festival in Switzerland.
BLAZE OF GLORY
George Li set the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition alight: Jessica Duchen finds him burning with enthusiasm for Rachmaninov, Dostoyevsky and the challenges of an international schedule
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 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 years old. 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.
Here he is performing Liszt’s La Campanella from the Tchaikovsky Competition:
I caught up with the unassuming and highly intelligent young musician in Hamburg, where he was making his debut at the city’s shiny new Elbphilharmonie with the Hamburg Philharmonic, playing Rachmaninov’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. When he begins playing, it’s another matter. 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, not 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.’
Old head on young shoulders
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.’
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW You can read the full interview inside issue 97 of Pianist magazine
WATCH GEORGE! Watch George Li perform in Verbier
ON DISC His new album, ‘Live at the Mariinsky’, is released on 1 September by Warner Classics (0190295812942).