Stories of youthful virtuosity abound, and digital dexterity in young, aspiring musicians is easy to find, even to admire. But discovering a teenager with not only the “chops” but a soul and mind to match, can be — and is — all too rare. Saturday evening, the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts sponsored George Li in his Jordan Hall solo debut. This amazing “youngster” left no doubt that he is one of the greatest talents of his generation.
Leading off with Czerny’s Opus 33 Variations on a theme by Rode, Li’s mastery of the instrument and his ability to communicate were evident from the very first phrase. He is no showman, because he does not need to be: his playing is totally at the service of the music in the most unaffected way, and he is clearly committed to letting the music speak for itself. Reverential and surprisingly mature in his dedication to the art he serves, he has an utterly genuine way of pausing before beginning a piece as well as hesitating when he finishes it; one senses his quiet joy at the privilege of revealing all he has discovered in each work he performs. As a result, his mien takes us on a journey with each composition, and we’d be fools not to join him. The Czerny, as one might expect, ranges from lightest gossamer and brilliant velocity to simple, poetic turns of phrase, and there were no opening jitters anywhere to be seen or heard. Everything was focused, shaded beautifully, and expressed perfectly. It literally brought tears to my eyes several times.
Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces were an unusual choice for the second offering of the program, and again, young Li was up to the challenge: each piece standing on its own yet appearing to fit into the sequence; his sense of timing both within and between movements made Schoenberg’s somewhat acerbic music seem almost to pass by too quickly.
Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata is a challenge even for the most mature and experienced player, and it is astonishing to me that a sixteen-year-old boy could offer as perceptive and penetrating a reading of this piece as what we heard here. If there were one criticism to make, it might be that the opening seemed slightly “reserved,” certainly in comparison with the drama which follows; but that may even have been the point, and I found the performance deeply convincing.
After intermission, the “color music” swept us along on a wave of effortless technical projection and brilliance. Two movements of Ravel’s Miroirs, (“Oiseaux Tristes” and “Alborada del Gracioso”) seemed like child’s play (only in the right way!), the former piece captured as perfectly as one might imagine. We could almost feel the cool winds of the Wldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), and the Gnomenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes) evoked a careening group of dancers in total abandon. Child’s play indeed: this pianist has a child-like ability to perceive, enjoy and project this music, but without a hint of childishness.
The sine qua non for testing a pianist’s mettle, the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, concluded the program. I wondered if even George would be up to this challenge, but my fears were quickly put to rest, indeed from the first note. Dazzling displays of blurred fingers (without any blurred notes) and staggering bravura passages were unfurled with seeming effortlessness. The audience rose immediately to their feet as the piece concluded, with the well-earned standing ovation only a modest measure of the stunning performance we had been privileged to hear.
Three encores followed: Bach’s Prelude in b minor, arranged by Siloti (often played by Dubrovka Tomsic); Liszt’s La Campanellia in a staggering performance; and the C-sharp minor Chopin Nocturne. At the recapitulation of the Chopin, Li achieved a hushed dynamic which seemed other-worldly.
There can be no doubt that George Li is headed to an international career, and he deserves just that, if last night was any indication of what he has to offer the music world. Boston, New England Conservatory, Walnut Hill School, and his teachers Yin Cheng Zong, Dorothy Shi and Wha Kyung Byun should take immense pride in having shared in the development of this brilliant young man.
Brian Jones is Emeritus Director of Music and Organist at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, where he directed an acclaimed program from 1984-2004. Active as organ solo artist and guest conductor, he has performed widely in the United States, Canada, England, Mexico, and Bermuda. His website is here.