IN: Reviews

Andrew Li’s High Energy

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Stravinsky scrambled up and riffed on music from his Petrushka ballet to produce a technically fearsome three-movement showpiece (for his friend Arthur Rubinstein). The 19-year-old pianist Andrew Li showed little difficulty with its violent challenges Tuesday evening in his Burnes Hall recital for the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, and the explosive workings of his digits and hands looked, and often sounded, most impressive. The musicality, wit, and rhythmic life of the puppet and his world, however, and even some of the melodic lines, mostly escaped the young artist. But as loud display, and even soft display, it awed.

Similarly Mussorgsky’s Pictures, in which Li painted many moments of tonal and expressive grandeur, majestically knocking the gate open at the end. Yet characterizations, as of the dancing chicks, the arguing geezers, and so on, again received insufficient recognition and differentiation.

Preceding and following these showpieces, the obligatory Schubert (F-minor Impromptu), Beethoven (Sonata Opus 90), and Chopin (encore; Etude Op. 10 No. 8) were unloved, almost uncomprehended beyond notes on page. Even those wistful Q&A sections of the Schubert sounded like enriched, beautiful exercises. The Beethoven, which features much Haydnesque wit as well as Schubertian song, was shapeless in addition. The Chopin assaulted the ear as the full opposite of this, with a seemingly willful cluelessness that made me speculate whether Li was taking the occasion as somehow like a reality TV competition. Indeed, the slight youth exhibits video-appealing swoops and sighs with his power.

Perhaps 35 years ago I asked a famous local piano teacher how one really talented young star was doing, learning under the master what was going on in the music, what to bring out and what not to, how to understand and then think about details musical. The teacher quipped, “Oh, his fingers are too fast to hear what I have to say.” I wonder if Andrew Li has been unduly influenced by Lang Lang or Yuja Wang. Of the latter, playing Petrushka no less, Matthew Guerrieri wrote that it was ever “true to the piano’s actuality, its discrete percussiveness, its steely ring. The real drama of the repertoire, she asserted, is in the keys and hammers and muscle of its realization.” That is one unpromising, not to say ultimately disobliging, way to think about piano music and to approach pianism in general.

Not to mention that both Lang Lang and Wang recently, ostentatiously have announced the need to reboot their aesthetic.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

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  1. “…….. the explosive workings of his digits and hands looked, and often sounded, most impressive. The musicality, wit, and rhythmic life of the puppet and his world, however, and even some of the melodic lines, mostly escaped the young artist……”
    Well said Mr Moran.
    I had the privilege in the mid 1980’s of working on several occasions as piano technician with Cuban born/American pianist Jorge Bolet, in talking with him about younger pianists he would use a similar phrase to the reviewer and he called their fast fingers ”digital pyrotechnics” (this before ‘digital’ took on a totally different meaning) and in masterclasses would work with students on a ”simple” melody line to try to instill or appreciate pianism.

    Comment by Martin Snow — August 22, 2019 at 8:16 am

  2. What is the point of a review like this? A senior citizen, self-styled piano “expert” (credentials, please?)essentially eviscerates a gifted young artist in print. Is the point to show the reviewer’s great critical discernment ? To help the young artist by “constructively” critiquing his playing? Or is it something more elemental, like envy? Whatever it is, you critics should know that your words matter. In today’s sparsely covered classical music arena, a review like this serves little purpose other than to attempt to display the critic’s “chops” and to denigrate the achievement of the young artist in the arena. Having heard Mr Li on several occasions (although not this one), I can report he’s a protean talent of remarkable attainment at only 19.
    An ungenerous review can have lasting and serious consequences for the performer, while the critic can happily go on to the next assignment. Maybe it’s time for performers to review the reviewers. That would be worth reading.

    Comment by Florestan — August 22, 2019 at 7:50 pm

  3. Good questions all, concerning something most reviewers struggle with, with any non-positive review, and especially of a musician early in career.

    The point with any review is to provide a report to the public, informative for all including the savvy, possibly helpful for performer if from someone experienced; also advocacy, and naturally there is more.

    Would it be better to skip covering the event because of its quality? And of course it would not be honest to dissemble. One tries to be reasonably generous, as feasible. I wish that you as a fan had heard this recital and could comment in detail. I took grief two years ago after giving a mixed review (for unevenness) to a much more poetic 19yo pianist, privately from him and publicly from his mother (but also anonymously, in violation of site rules). So it is difficult to know how best to proceed (fair to readers, fair to performer) in such situations.

    I have never been called a senior citizen till now, so will put that on a nametag. My chops as pianist of 66 years are nothing I would care to expose to the public, although I have, many times (nonpaying).
    Envy always not just at working musicians’ technical facility but even more at their immense capacities for labor, disciplined and focused. I have twice been an awarded Fellow under the Music Critics Association National Endowment for the Arts program of yore, but put no great store in that either.

    It would be good to hear from performers about the utility of reviews, yes.

    Thanks.

    Comment by davidrmoran — August 23, 2019 at 1:45 am

  4. *”Andrew Li showed little difficulty with its violent challenges”.
    *”And the explosive workings of his digits and hands looked, and often sounded, most impressive”.
    *”But as loud display, and even soft display, it awed”.
    *”Similarly Mussorgsky’s Pictures, in which Li painted many moments of tonal and expressive grandeur, majestically knocking the gate open at the end”.

    These all sound very positive comments by Mr Moran on the fledgling career of a young pianist, so “essentially eviscerates a gifted young artist in print” comment by Florestan sounds awfully like helicopters hovering.

    Comment by Martin Snow — August 23, 2019 at 10:24 am

  5. Magnificent performance! I loved hearing Mr. Li’s mastery of blending his gargantuan technique with infinite musical nuance and interpretation. Repertoire including Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, Beethoven and Chopin totally suited Mr. Li’s musical temperament and strengths. The audience was completely wowed and grateful, with standing ovations throughout the performance—congratulations Mr. Li!! Liz Diamond, pianist, former Piano Consultant, M. Steinert & Sons/Boston

    Comment by Liz Diamond — August 24, 2019 at 10:53 pm

  6. Florestan: “What is the point of a review like this?…”

    An excellent question, and an opportunity to revisit the vital role of criticism in the arts.

    As a pianist, composer, and avid participant in musical scenes both local and abroad since my student days, I have learned an enormous amount from musical criticism. One of the first things I came to understand is that ‘criticism’ in the context of the arts is not at all synonymous with ‘disparagement’, much less ‘evisceration’. In fact, I take the word’s closest cousin in meaning to be ‘appreciation’. Words written about music have vastly deepened my understanding and appreciation for an art form that can only speak for itself in a language quite different from words. This has been true for me even of opinions issuing from those with whom I come to disagree – a list that has included both critics and composers including many of my favorites. In that sense, criticism functions in parallel to performance itself, where an artist absorbs a piece, develops his or her own unique sense of it, and communicates that personal sense ineffably.

    I can’t imagine how it would have been possible for a critic like David Moran to have acquired his extraordinarily acute and informed appreciation for piano performance without coming to recognize what makes for great music-making, and what detracts from it. In his many BMInt pieces, especially reviews of performances I heard as well, I’ve appreciated his perspective and insights – even in those uncommon cases where I heard things quite differently. I’ve also recognized his gracious inclination to support young performers like Andrew Li, whose many strengths and virtues he was careful to document above.

    The best piano criticism, like Mr. Moran’s, conveys the critic’s enthusiasm and appreciation for both the artist and for the art itself, to which the critic owes a comparable allegiance and duty. In the case of Igor Stravinsky, for example, to the extent that the critic appreciates how the composer invested that little puppet and his world with all kinds of possibilities for musicality, wit, and rhythmic life, it is his or her duty to point out if most of that has escaped the artist. Doing so benefits everyone, even in the event of disagreement: it sharpens the discernment of others who’ve heard things differently, and can result in interesting and informative dialogue – ubiquitous on the ‘pages’ of BMInt, and in evidence just above.

    One more thing, dear Florestan: I’ve been in your shoes, too, but allow me to play Eusebius for a moment. That callow attempt of yours to deride Mr. Moran as a “senior citizen, self-styled piano “expert”” misses something essential about the nature of our art. The appreciation of great music, such as Mr. Li featured on his Tuesday night program, involves a lifelong process of learning and cultivation. Remember when a reporter asked a 95 year old Pablo Casals why he still practiced many hours daily? “Because I think I’m making progress…”

    Comment by nimitta — August 25, 2019 at 12:52 pm

  7. The reviewer has in mind certain ideas of how a piece of music should sound in performance.

    The performer does’t do it.

    The reviewer, although impressed by the performer’s undeniably spectacular technique, concludes that because those ideas were not made manifest to the reviewer’s satisfaction in performance, the musician is lacking in artistry and musical wisdom.

    This seems to be the scenario we are dealing with here.

    Since it is clear that the performer has rare and remarkable technical skills that allow him to easily traverse and express a splendid landscape of musical conceits, a few questions occur to be considered: is it possible that the critic’s preconceived ideas about how the piece “should go” are not necessarily sensible or knowledgeable?

    (Who is to say, for example, that the characterizations of the dancing chicks and the arguing geezers
    in the Mussorgsky piece should be clearly differentiated? Perhaps the performer made a calculated decision not to go that route because such a pictorial path would be overstating the obvious; crude and condescending to his audience.)

    Who should we give credence to; the perhaps capricious whims of a critic or the courageous work of a remarkably skilled performing musician?

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — August 25, 2019 at 4:04 pm

  8. If only it were so simple as to be taste alone. There are indications in the score, there are musical understandings to be drawn from the notes and phrases and indications and more, and there are many dozens of recordings and past performances, even recent. (Korsantia painted a magnificent Pictures in this very summer series only two years ago; Beethoven Opus 90 I have heard perhaps three times in the same period; and every season a great many love to do the smaller Schubert and Chopin pieces.)

    Also, almost everyone today has truly spectacular technique; it’s amazing and all teachers used to comment on it (old news: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/arts/music/yuja-wang-and-kirill-gerstein-lead-a-new-piano-generation.html).

    Nobody has to give any credence to reviewers, even experienced ones. But I bet you yourself form musical and performance judgments based on something or other.

    Comment by davidrmoran — August 25, 2019 at 5:01 pm

  9. Dear Mr. Moran,

    Of course I judge musical performances. For me not to respond both intellectually and emotionally to a musical performance would mean that my ashes have been scattered into Sheboygan Harbor.

    Impressive it is that you have, with score in hand, perhaps heard and studied more versions of “Pictures at an Exhibition “ than there are Republicans in Waukesha County (and that’s a helluva lot of Republicans.) But here’s something to consider: is it possible that that exposure may occasionally hinder your willingness to enjoy new conceits and new beauty? You say that there was in Maestro Li’s work “willful cluelessness.” Could it be that instead he was working to manifest the highest calling of a maestro:

    To teach.

    Here is a confession: I have a similar challenge myself in regards to counter-tenors. When I was a tiny boy in the early ’60’s, my dear mother would play those starkly covered “Bach Guild” LP’s that contained the remarkable ululations of Alfred Deller. His sublime work grabbed me for life. More than half a century later, my ardor for Alfred remains undiminished. The problem, you may not be surprised to hear, is that when I listen to a contemporary countertenor, the temptation is to measure his work in comparison to the divine Deller. If followed, that strategy prevents me from hearing new things and seeking out new paths to Parnassus Street.

    At the risk of being presumptuous, my suggestion to you is, the next time you hear a performance of “Pictures”, that you temporarily banish the inimitable Korsantia from your mind. It is not easy to willingly suspend disbelief in the masters. Sometimes it pays off.

    The counter-tenor singing in the last “Poppea” I attended knocked my socks off.

    Respectfully,

    Jonathan Brodie

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — August 26, 2019 at 10:53 am

  10. Jonathan Brodie: “The reviewer has in mind certain ideas of how a piece of music should sound in performance. The performer does’t do it. The reviewer, although impressed by the performer’s undeniably spectacular technique, concludes that because those ideas were not made manifest to the reviewer’s satisfaction in performance, the musician is lacking in artistry and musical wisdom. This seems to be the scenario we are dealing with here.”

    Not to me.

    Listeners with a deep and broad appreciation for great music-making at the piano – like David Moran, surely – understand that the “definitive” performance doesn’t exist. Thus, they expect each great performance of a given piece to be unique, and may be enthusiastic about wildly different approaches, even though each one lacks something special that others might have.

    Who, for example, rendered the ‘greatest’ Opus 111: was it Schnabel? Pollini? Kempff? Cortot? Arrau? Richter? Fischer, Edwin or Annie? Alfred Brendel? Backhaus? Michelangeli? Ashkenazy? Zimerman? Diverse as they are – and wow, are they diverse! – they’re ALL great, and there were and will be others…

    …but here’s the punchline: each of these uniquely magnificent performances is also flawed in some way – that is, lacking some scintilla of artistry or musical wisdom achieved by a different performance or artist.

    As I hear things, it’s always a matter of proportion, hovering between extremes of artistic insight, inspiration, engagement, and execution, matched to the particular setting and even program when live.

    Back to the critique: were I to re-work your first sentence to come closer to my perspective, it might be something like:

    The mind of a listener – we’re all reviewers, right? – is wise and informed to the extent that it can:

    • hold an array of ideas how a piece of music might sound in performance
    • engage fully with the unique performance at hand
    • remain open to the possibility that one’s array of ideas may well be altered and perhaps expanded by it, just as it has in the past by any great performance

    Comment by nimitta — August 26, 2019 at 11:01 am

  11. I join this discussion with some trepidation. I attended Andrew Li’s recital. I have read and re-read Mr. Moran’s review and everyone’s comments. Before addressing the review and comments, let me first give my impression of the recital.

    Li has astonishing technique and seems to be following in the footsteps, or perhaps standing on the shoulders, of his older brother George. George has really blossomed musically in the last 5 years, and I think we can have complete confidence that Andrew will similarly build on his prodigious talent as he works and reflects on the repertoire. The audience members that I spoke with were uniformly thrilled with what they heard. Aside from the Beethoven, which at least to my ears lacked solemnity (1st movement, sorry-I’ve never perceived any Haydnesque wit) and lyricism (2nd movement), it was just a grand evening. The Stravinsky was an absolute hoot; let’s not get too cerebral about a magician and a puppet! How lucky we are to live in a town with so many great musicians!

    As for Mr. Moran’s review, I did find it troubling. Commenter Martin Snow listed the positive remarks in the review as evidence of even-handedness. But I am reminded of the advocacy technique where one acknowledges a countervailing argument before stating the favored argument, e.g., “Although he did this well, he did that poorly.” This construction leaves a negative impression. Mr. Moran’s review repeatedly followed this pattern, accenting the negative after every compliment. At times it just seemed to go too far:

    “the obligatory Schubert, Beethoven, and Chopin…” Obligatory? Huh?
    “loud display…willful cluelessness…reality TV competition” Ouch!

    And then, in the comment above,
    “ …almost everyone today has truly spectacular technique…” So we’re grading on a curve and class average has gone up?

    Florestan, above, wonders whether perhaps envy might have figured into this review. Many of us have probably spent about a half century at the keyboard and not gotten within light-years of Andrew Li’s mastery. I know I was envious, but in a good way. Considering how things have been going in the world, I’ve been down on homo sapiens. But last Tuesday’s recital suggests that perhaps our species is worth saving.

    Thanks to the editors and reviewers for continuing to publish BMint.

    Comment by Bob D. — August 26, 2019 at 12:12 pm

  12. More thoughtful points. I was not distinctly recalling or even thinking of Korsantia (or Paul Schenley, my first studious exposure to Pictures) during this rendition, in the way that Kovacevich (first Beethoven set, >45y ago) sets for me the gold standard for 111 (definitive, I feel).
    Of course there are taste and judgment; others are not bothered by Schiff’s flabby rhythm. And I just sent a video of Peter Fang’s Paganini Variations to a critic (and pianist) whom I esteem, with a note calling attention to how rounded he is, and he replied Yes, but to him the variations sounded the same, a perceptive response. This, I believe, is not that.

    I did not know that the below was online, from last fall, else I would have referred to it in responding to commenters who did not hear this recital; recorded sound aside, compare melody handling (and all else) 9:35ff

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TRwCnLrRns

    with the same here (9minff)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr-OGhjsdaU

    and the whole work as well. ‘More characterization and variety’, as a colleague put it.

    (Others more knowledgeable than I could surely point to renditions even more musical than Bachauer; Pollini, I know, is, again, favored by many.)

    Comment by davidrmoran — August 26, 2019 at 12:16 pm

  13. It is alway pleasant to read Nimitta’s measured insights. Thank you.

    I did not accuse Mr. Moran of having a definitive performances in mind. I did say that that I sensed that he had certain ideas about how a piece should go…a different statement indeed. And why should he not? He has in his repertoire of knowledge the memory of many distinguished performances. My argument is that that knowledge, impressive as it is, seems to have in this instance given his criticism of Mr. Li’s work a dogmatic aggressiveness that I’m sure doesn’t resemble his usual graciousness.

    Bob D’s recent contribution to this discussion helps assure me that I’m not the only one to find several of Mr. Moran’s tropes disturbing: “Willful cluelessness” stands out to my genial midwestern perspective as being needlessly accusatory. Am I being too sensitive in thinking that calling Mr. Li’s fingers “digits” is, for lack of a better word, dehumanizing?

    You mentioned in a previous comment that you have benefited in you musical life from insightful criticism.
    So have I. So have, I suspect, many fortunate readers of the Boston Musical Intelligencer.

    The criticism that has helped me in my life was made more worthy and effective because it was delivered to me in a manner different from what I read in this review.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — August 26, 2019 at 1:43 pm

  14. Andrew Li shared abundant charm, enthusiasm and chops. Everyone in the room wanted him to succeed, and almost everyone felt he did. Did his coltish bouyance possess the nth degree of poetry? Probably not.

    To be moved beyond mere excitement, I need to hear subtle variation from the metric and predictable…surprising rubato, etc. I have no doubt the Andrew Li will develop and share these qualities.

    As for the regrettable term “willful cluelessness,” I can’t imagine how that charge could be evidence based or that any player would choose to sound clueless.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 26, 2019 at 2:26 pm

  15. I feel it unseemly to continue this review but have to defend my work. I try and choose words with care, particularly the non-boosting ones, and the evidence — for me — was the pianist’s attacking that Chopin Etude perversely — my opinion — as in deliberate preparation for a rough ride. (Recalling occasional competition playing from the past.) That is why I thought it helpful to link to the usual / customary opposite approach and touch. I could also have linked to Trifonov at 19, or to Pollini’s.

    Comment by davidrmoran — August 26, 2019 at 3:45 pm

  16. Andrew Li gets a “rough ride” here on the pages of the Boston Musical Intellegencer.[sic] This from Mr. Eiseman:

    “Andrew Li shared abundant charm, enthusiasm and chops. Everyone in the room wanted him to succeed, and almost everyone felt he did. Did his coltish bouyance possess the nth degree of poetry? Probably not. To be moved beyond mere excitement, I need to hear subtle variation from the metric and predictable…surprising rubato, etc. I have no doubt the Andrew Li will develop and share these qualities.As for the regrettable term “willful cluelessness,” I can’t imagine how that charge could be evidence based or that any player would choose to sound clueless.”

    “Coltish charm.”: Please reassure me that this is not another way of calling the artist immature? He may be young in years, and certainly he will continue to grow as an artist, but the reality is that he is a virtuoso. Calling a virtuoso a “colt” or saying that he has “chops” does not honor that distinguished achievement.

    “I need to hear subtle variation from the metric and predictable…”. Does this mean that Mr. Li did not do that? If so, perhaps he didn’t take your road to musical Parnasus because he wanted to take his own. Or perhaps he was trying to offer you a new perspective. He is not a servant. He is not your servant. The word “need” particular grates. Does one go to concerts only to fulfill “needs.”? Perhaps you should go to expand your perspective and learn new things.

    “Mere excitement.”? A musician who is able to move an audience to excitement is a fine musician indeed. The word “mere” insinuates that the emotion of excitement inspired by a musical performance is not as worthy as other emotions. Rubes, I hear you say (I hope I don’t but I think I do) go for “mere’ excitement. The cognoscenti go for poetry. Oh dear!

    “Everyone in the room wanted him to succeed, and almost everyone felt he did.”: You make it sound that you were surrounded by people whose definition of musical success is suspect. In short, your word choice hints that you were hemmed in by a convocation of the aforementioned rubes. Interestingly, if rubes they were, they were the ones who went home inspired. There are advantages, I think, to not approaching a musical performance with the main goal being to having one’s needs fulfilled. Fortunate rubes!

    A wise song that celebrates the sublimity of sufficiency comes to mind. It is called “Dayenu.” With apologies to the venerable and noble religious tradition that formed this wonderful piece of music, I add verses that have a bearing on the discussion at hand.

    “If he had played a recital of wonderful music (despite a few dropped notes):

    Dayenu!

    If he had played a note-perfect recital of wonderful music:

    Dayenu!

    If he had moved the audience to excitement…

    Dayenu…

    Comment by jonathan Brodie — August 30, 2019 at 10:59 am

  17. A review with the single word “Dayenu” would not have been enough. Is that all Jonathan Brodie wants from a review?

    As publisher, I task reviewers with making the concert audible and visible to those who were not there, and to provide fodder for discussion with those who were.

    Excitation and enthusiasm followed by boosterism…that is one kind of response. Tears and quiet joys are others.

    I stand by my brief description of Andrew Li’s playing, and I find it strange to read that I am giving him a “rough ride.” In fact I am presenting him twice in the the new season. He is advancing rapidly in artistry. His Petrushka has developed marvelously since I heard him play it a year ago.

    With eight pianists of very distinctly different personalities on view during the recent Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts summer festival, critics have a vital role to compare and contrast. Every pianist had quotable lines within our dispatches.

    Experienced reviewers can provide useful and instructive feedback to young artists…and old artists too.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 30, 2019 at 11:30 am

  18. jonathan Brodie,

    Sorry if I missed it, but were you there? Did you hear this recital?

    Comment by David R. Moran — August 30, 2019 at 12:34 pm

  19. Dear Mr. Eiseman,

    I can easily imagine a time when the single praiseful phrase “Dayenu”
    would be a wonderfully apt way to review a musical performance. Sometimes “brevity is a by-product of vigor.” (William Strunk)

    Dear Mr. Moran,

    I was not at the recital. Your question is irrelevant to this discussion as I am not reviewing the recital. I have been reviewing your review and responding to its regrettable manners.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — August 30, 2019 at 1:46 pm

  20. Mr. Brodie, despite your protests to the contrary, you are making assertions about a performance you did not hear. Does that demonstrate good manners?

    But I’m with you about Strunk, especially his encouragement of fresh, colorful and pithy usage. Omit unnecesarry words, indeed, including much of this debate.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 30, 2019 at 4:29 pm

  21. JB- Do you think you are doing Andrew Li any favors by these complaints?

    Comment by denovo2 — August 30, 2019 at 4:35 pm

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