Pianist George Li surfing a wave of success

George Li. Photo: Simon Fowler

In 2015, George Li made a musical breakthrough. The young Chinese American pianist took home a silver medal from the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

It’s the kind of thing that can really launch a career. Not only did he take away some hardware. he picked up an important mentor —Valery Abisalovich Gergiev. The maestro of the Mariinsky is the president of this competition and Li’s name came to his attention. 

The Russian conductor is “an incredible musician, but he’s so busy. You have to be super prepared when you go in. You have to expect rehearsals to be brief.”

Their relationship developed through the competition.

“He cares about younger musicians and he wants to mentor them. He has helped me a lot. What is special during those performances, even though not much rehearsal time, you are forced to be hypersensitive to each other. Many interesting and unexpected things then can come out in a performance that are kind of magical.”

Since then, Li has been recording with Warner Classics and has released two CDs. The latest features him playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Vasily Petrenko. The disc also includes three works by Liszt. His first was a live recording of Haydn, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Liszt at the Mariinsky with Gergiev. 

It has been a heady few years for the young American.

“I always consider competitions to be a necessary evil. They do have many good sides, however even though they are stressful and in terms of music making it’s probably not the best way to make the most genuine.

“Still it pushed me beyond my limits and it provided a great platform for me to showcase what I can do as a performer and as pianist. 

To prepare he took a year off from school to just polish the repertoire. I ran most days to relieve stress, breathe fresh air and get my lungs pumping. That gave me some kind of centre and a way to clear my mind of the music that I was practicing every day.”

He has been to Ottawa before just after the big win. His concerts on Feb. 26 and 27 will be his debut with the NAC Orchestra. His previous time in Ottawa was in the Master Piano Recital Series at Southminster Church.

While he doesn’t know NACO, he does know the conductor very well. He has worked with Xian Zhang several times.

His debut with her was also in the wake of the Tchaikovsky. He played Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra where she is music director.

“We hit it off. She is a wonderful musician, so easy to work with.”

She took Li on tour with the NJSO this past September to Beijing, China. And there have been other recent gigs in Baltimore and in New Jersey again.

There is a strong Chinese presence in this concert in Southam Hall.

Xian Zhang was born in Dandon, China. Li’s parents emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s and the orchestra will play a piece by the Chinese composer Qigang Chen. His piece, L’éloignement. He was confined for “ideological reeducation” during the Cultural Revolution.

Li, who was born in Boston, Mass., feels a strong connection to China.

“Even though I am very much an American, my parents are from China and they embrace their roots and taught me to as well.

“Every time I go to China, it feels very comfortable for me, it’s like going to a second home. From my childhood, my parents would tell me about my family’s history.” His parents are both from Guangzhou. His father emigrated in 1984 and his mother in 1989. 

China is a welcoming place for classical musicians. Every city, it seems, has a brand new concert hall and there is an estimated 10 million young Chinese learning to play the piano.

He did a recital tour of 11 cities.

“When you get into the interior and into cities that aren’t major centres, it’s so new there they aren’t used to the etiquette of a classical performance. But, at the same time, you just feel this fresh enthusiasm and joy in the audiences which is hard to find in places in the West.

His family home was packed with music. His parents are classical fans and his older sister played the piano.

I remember listening to her practice.”

He pretty quickly developed an appreciation and at four and a half he felt he wanted to try it. At first, though, it was more like a hobby.

“At some point, music changed for me. I started to realize the power that it had and from then on I wanted to be a musician.

“I wasn’t attracted to other forms of music. When I was 11, that’s when I fell in love with classical. Since then I have focussed on that.

There are many pieces of music that have been important in creating his focus on classical music but one does stand out. He remembers listening to a recording of the Moonlight Sonata by Evgeny Kissin.

“That one recording was captivating; it was so vivid, it got my blood pumping. I remember thinking that if I could ever rival that, that would be something. That memory has stayed with me.”

He learned the Moonlight as a teen and recently he has gone back to it.

“It is always interesting how you work on something as a kid and then you go back to it as an adult and you see so many other things.”

It’s the same with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, which he will play in Ottawa.

“It’s a piece that I have worked through like the Moonlight. I first learned it at 11, 12 and then I didn’t touch again until the Tchaikovsky competition.” 

He returned to it again last year.

“It’s so fresh and exuberant. It runs a full gamut of emotions like the fresh, spring-like atmosphere in first movement, to the tragic, simple but painful second and then the sheer joy of the third movement.” 

Mozart would have conducted from the piano.

That’s something the Li thinks about, but not yet. “I think having a conductor gives you something less to worry about and you can focus on music. But it would be fun to try it out.”

He has played the piece twice with Xian Zhang at the helm and she offers him a fair bit of freedom.

“She is interested in what I have to say about the music. At same time she will give a few pointers if I’m not aware of something and remind me of things to think about.”

NAC Orchestra presents Marvellous Mozart
Conducted by Xian Zhang, featuring pianist George Li
Where: Southam Hall
When: Feb. 26 & 27 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.