By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
If you want to make it to the top, you have to start small. Award-winning Chinese American pianist George Li knows that from personal experience.
“I was 4 and a half years old when I started [playing piano],” remembered Li, guesting with the Symphony Tacoma on Nov. 23. “One memory that stood out was when I was young playing a simple four-hand piece with my teacher. I messed up and had to stop, but I was unfazed and asked to start over again, and managed to play through the second time.”
Li grew up in Boston, and his parents are both Chinese. He grew up with stories of their struggles during the Cultural Revolution and felt lucky to be far removed from all that, although he did visit China twice as a child. He’s fluent in English and French. When asked if he speaks Chinese, he chuckled, “kind of.”
As for music, that was always a great love.
“I remember listening to music ever since I was a baby. My older sister used to play the piano, and my parents loved classical music, so it was always around me from a very young age.”
Li idolized the Russian prodigy pianist Evgeny Kissin. His own childhood teachers included the famous Chinese pianist Yin Chenzong, Korean pianist Wha Kyung Byun, and American pianist Russell Sherman.
Yin helped him with developing deep musicianship, and finding “ways to sing on the piano.”
Byun and Sherman taught him to make a feedback loop of listening intently to what he plays, conceptualizing his goals inside his head, and focusing intently to make the playing match the inner goals. But he’s also grateful to his very first piano teacher, Dorothy Shi, for teaching him the technical foundations that made everything else possible.
At age 9, he made his professional debut with the Xiamen Philharmonic, based in the Chinese city of Xiamen, and widely considered one of the country’s best orchestras.
“It was quite stressful, as it was the first time I was playing with a professional orchestra, in front of many fervent music lovers. I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to perform on stage, so luckily I don’t have to worry as much about stage fright. However, when I do feel the stress, I try to keep a strict routine on the day of a concert so that I feel comfortable and stay relaxed.”
Performing, especially as a child, involved mastery over great stress. But Li quickly evolved a pattern of keeping a strict routine on the day of a show, which allows him to feel calm and in control. He’s also a great believer in naps. A nap before a concert revitalizes him.
Li’s many awards include a first prize at the Cooper International Piano Competition at Oberlin College, Ohio; a shared second prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition; a shared Gilmore Young Artist Award (distinguishing himself as the youngest-ever recipient); and an Avery Fisher Career Grant, awarded to outstanding classical instrumentalists. He’s proudest of the Tchaikovsky Competition medal, noting that he spent an entire year working on that repertoire.
He also performed before President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2011. “I never expected such a moment could happen to me,” he recalled. “I felt like I was in a trance that whole day. They are such warm and kind people.”
For the Symphony Tacoma, under the direction of Sarah Ioannides, he’ll perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor. The piece is one of the most famous and popular concertos in the piano literature, in part because of the many heart-wrenching melodies and harmonies. Its climaxes are deeply felt and incredible. It also happens to be one of the most challenging pieces to play, partly due to the sheer amount of notes, and a marathon-like feel, a contest of stamina.
When asked about his thoughts on Asians and Asian Americans in classical music, Li sounds a hopeful note.
“I think it’s amazing to have so many Asian performers rising up in the music scene. It makes me feel proud to be Asian, but also as an Asian American growing up, I can say that learning piano has taught me many things outside of music, including the valuable lesson of discipline, dedication, and perseverance in approaching anything you do.
“I hope this love for classical music can only grow, and that we can help continue to spread the appreciation of classical music throughout the world.”
George Li plays with the Symphony Tacoma on Nov. 23rd, at the Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway in Tacoma. For prices and other details, visit symphonytacoma.org.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.