George Li
Broadway World

Occasionally a concert of stalwart popular favorites reminds you of what made them so special in the first place - providing a fresh look at a familiar landscape. The program presented by the New Jersey Symphony, under the baton of Musical Director Xian Zhang, at Bergen PAC on January 13th, did just that, reminding the rapt audience just how electrifying the standard repertory can be in the proper hands.

The evening began with the NJSO Premiere of a newer work entitled, "Ge Xu," by Chinese composer Chen Yi. Yi was the first Chinese woman ever to receive a Master Degree in music composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her composition "Si Ji" (Four Seasons). It is difficult to accurately and fairly review such a complex piece on only one listening, let alone a first listening, thus, some observations will have to suffice.

The 1994 composition got off to slightly rocky start with some discord in the strings during in the opening notes, but shortly thereafter order was restored with the entrance of the woodwinds and harp. The mélange of layered melodies suggested an ethereal timelessness, which was soon brought to a halt in a dissonant chord, punctuated by a bracing burst of muted brass and gong. Pulsating strings and percussion followed, creating a distinctly forward momentum, in stark constrast to the opening. A section of violent solo percussion followed, out of which high swirling strings and fluttering flutes lead to a melody of bright brass.

Throughout the piece, Yi seems to use the quieter sections to build tension and ultimately release them through bursts of angry percussion. Conductor Zhang wielded her baton with the precision of a diamond cutter, keeping the varied and layered, difficult rhythms clear and distinct. At the conclusion, the brass completely dropped out to allow high strings, gentle bells and a sweet flute to create yet another hauntingly tense melody - with only a hint of distant percussion bringing back the sense of timelessness from the opening.

At the conclusion of the Yi piece, Zhang took to the microphone to explain the "America, Inspired" concept of the concert, and then introduced the soloist for the evening, young phenom, George Li. Mr. Li was the winner of the Silver Medal at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition and was recipient of the 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant. At 22, Mister Li has already performed with dozens of the world's leading orchestras under the batons of such luminary conductors as Michael Tillson Thomas, Gustavo Dudamel, and Valery Gergiev, to name just a few.

There are few adjectives that adequately describe Mr. Li's technical prowess, as seemingly effortless elegance marked every aspect of his interpretation of the concerto. The Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto is certain to become one of his signature pieces. Completed in late 1921 from sketches that date back to 1913, the piece was initially intended as a theme-and-variations, and elements of that early structure remain. Chronologically, the concerto follows Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, which although delightful, and featuring luscious neo-classical harmonies, is firmly rooted in the past. The concerto, by contrast, in very much a forward-looking piece in overall structure and harmony.

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