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.