in: Reviews

August 12, 2012

George Li, More Than a Prodigy

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Having previously raved [here] in the Intelligencer about the astonishing pianist George Li, I was curious to hear him again to see if my first hearing was just a matter of being astounded by an improbably small teenage dynamo. Li has won innumerable competitions, and the high points of his remarkable young life have been assiduously videotaped — you can get caught up with it all on YouTube.

I have never been enamored of the idea of prodigies. Twice now I have gone to hear Li (who will be 17 in a week) with more than a bit of skepticism. And twice now, he has completely won me over. He is the real thing, and like other prodigies, is being well nurtured by a close family, a piano teacher (Wha Kyung Byun), and a small village of musical enablers who genuinely care about him and his growth as a musician.

The concert on August 10 for the Walnut Hill Music Festival was sponsored by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts. Li had just returned from the Verbier Festival where, his father proudly mentioned, he had a one-hour lesson on the “Waldstein” Sonata with Alfred Brendel. Now heading into his senior year at Walnut Hill School, Li has a calendar packed with recital and concerto dates, including several local appearances (see his website). He is definitely worth hearing.

The program began with Haydn’s Sonata No. 60 in C Major, Hob. Xvi/50. Li seems at home with Haydn, which also opened his Gardner Museum concert. From the opening Allegro on, one admired Li’s clarity, his voicing, and his lyricism, qualities that imbued the rest of the program as well. With each piece, Li has a way of making one think that this particular composer is his specialty. Here he caught Haydn’s mercurial moods with beautifully controlled dynamics, an expressive left hand, and lyrical arpeggios that seemed, in the second movement, to stretch time itself.

In the Beethoven “Waldstein” Sonata, no. 21 in D Major, Op. 53, the first movement was simply thrilling. The second movement was played exquisitely and understatedly, building to an exciting conclusion. The third movement again featured a solid, exacting left hand, letting him show off his piano chops he had been keeping in check before this. What a show! There were many teenagers and small children with their parents in the audience. One only wonders if this prompted them to consider practicing a lot harder. What an example!

After intermission came Bartók’s 1926 Piano Sonata, with which Li had impressed at the Gardner. It was great to hear it in such capable hands again. The piece is one that doesn’t get played very often, and one I wish, I wish, Li would eventually record it. It’s full of drama and tenderness, romantic melodies and propulsive rhythms, with right-hand octaves jumping all over the keyboard. In the famous Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (cadenza by Rachmaninov), Li had a chance to bring out the hilarity and humor with the showmanship of a champ. Many times it sounded like four hands playing, but in this case, four perfectly orchestrated hands. Li played it spectacularly.

For encores, Li played two Chopin pieces and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, which one can hear Li play on YouTube. (He performed it at age 13, along with the Liszt). Prodigies have fabulous fingers and amazing memories. Li has far more than that. He is a thoughtful, expressive musician who happens to play the piano incredibly well.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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