Young U.S. pianist George Li ignites a passion for music

George Li
Ottawa Citizen

Barely into his 20s, U.S. pianist George Li has played for everyone from former U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Martha Stewart, who featured him on her TV show when he was 11 and had already played Carnegie Hall.

But Li’s career-defining achievement to date came on July 1, 2015, when at the age of 21 he won second prize at the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia.

Li, who lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, makes his Ottawa debut Tuesday at Southminster United Church where he will play a solo program of music by Haydn, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Liszt. Li discussed the roots of his prodigious talent with the Citizen.

Q: Where does your love for music and the piano come from?

A: Neither of my parents are musicians, but they are music lovers. My sister also used to play the piano when I was little, and I suppose that all those years of exposure helped to develop my own love for music. My mom also brought both of us to many concerts in Boston, and always turned on the classical radio station before going to bed. All of these things factored in igniting a passion for music.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a concert pianist?

I think it was when I was 11, when I played a concerto with orchestra in a local town. It was Beethoven 1, and I remember suddenly having a surreal experience, different from all the previous times that I performed publicly. It felt like being in a different world, where the only thing that mattered was the music. After the concert, people came up to me saying how powerful the music was, and how it changed their lives even. I had no idea that music could be so powerful, and from then on I wanted to continue to affect people and perhaps heal them with music.

Q: What are the big satisfactions of doing what you do?

A: For me, it’s both the reward after the hours and days of experimentation and working on a specific piece, as well as the impact the music can potentially have on the public. It is very satisfying and gratifying when the connection between composer, artist and public becomes one.

Q: I read you practised piano seven hours a day to attain your virtuosity. What has that regimen involved?

A: I think my practicing habits evolved over time. In the beginning, it was definitely a lot of technical practicing, and a big focus on sound production/sound quality, which formed the foundation for my later studies. It then became more of a workshop, where I took everything apart and practiced the little nuances and details of the piece, before putting it back together and trying to build one large structure out of it.

Q: Is there a difference for you — how you play, how you feel — when it comes to playing in a competition versus playing in a concert?

A: Even though in the perfect world there shouldn’t be a difference between the two, I think there naturally is one. The whole mood within the hall is entirely different, mostly because of that intimidating front line that is the jury, sitting mere feet away from the performer (at least at the Tchaikovsky Competition). There is this ever-present tension, although I really tried my best to think of it as a festival and a series of concerts. I think that mentality really helped when I began to play, as it helped to ease off that tension and I become more relaxed. I focused on playing for the Russian people in the hall, who really appreciate music, instead of the jury, and that helped me feel at home.

Q: Who are some of your favourite composers and why?

A: It’s a tough question, because I try to form a special relationship with the composer whenever I play a new piece. And there is so much great music out there, that when I start trying to rank them, I just can’t! But I think Beethoven, Schubert, among many others, are really special to me. For Beethoven, I just love the intensity and how he is able to create so much variety, colour and character out of so little material. It’s really unbelievable. Schubert’s melodies are incredible, and his limitless ability to create beauty, tragedy and the gamut of expression is very moving. Although, you could probably say the same thing about many other great composers!

Q: Outside of music, what interests you?

A: I love to read, especially novels and romantic poetry. Also, like many other musicians, I am a big sports fanatic. I love baseball, basketball, American football and regular football. I’m a Boston fan through and through, with the exception of soccer — I support Arsenal!
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