Interview with George Li

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Meet George Li, the distinguished Young Artist who will appear with Winsor Music on Sunday, Sept. 14th, 7:00pm, at St. Paul's Church in Brookline. George is a prizewinning pianist and sought-after concerto soloist who has played for President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and members of Congress. He just completed his freshman year of the Harvard/NEC dual degree program last year. George is represented by Young Concert Artists, Inc., and in 2012 was the winner of the Gilmore Young Artist Award and recipient of the Tabor Foundation Piano Award at the Verbier Academy.

How old were you when you started playing, and how did you get started?
I started playing the piano when I was 4 and a half, and my first inspiration to start piano was my older sister, who now teaches math. When she was little, she used to study the piano, and since I was very young, I was exposed to her practicing, and I used to listen to the classical radio station when I was going to bed at night.

Was there any piece or composer that you particularly remember from listening to classical radio as a kid?
Yes, I remember this specific recording of Evgeny Kissin playing the Moonlight sonata, which was very inspiring to me, and I always wished that one day I would be able to play like that. When I finally conquered that piece, it was a very happy moment.

Was there a moment or a turning point when you started to feel like you could do this professionally?
Yes, definitely, I think it was when I was 11, and I played my second concert with orchestra; it was a Beethoven concerto. I felt really different that time — in concert, I felt like I entered a different world while I was playing. It was a very otherworldly experience for me. After the concert, people started coming to me, saying that my music had helped them with their lives, and changed their lives significantly. I guess from that moment, I realized that if I could do this as a career, it would be nice.

It seems like you have a thing for Beethoven!
I really like his music. In my freshman year at Harvard, during my second semester I took a class on Beethoven’s symphonies and learned to appreciate his music a lot.

Have you played much chamber music before?
Yeah, I started when I was nine years old at preparatory school at New England Conservatory, and I formed this group, a trio, with Momo Wong and Jonah Ellsworth, who are also great New England musicians in college. We had a lot of fun; we performed at From the Top, and we went to the Fischoff Chamber music competition, which was a great experience. I really love doing chamber music, it’s so fun. Also, over the summer, I went to Switzerland for a competition, and in the final round I got to play with the Jerusalem Quartet. That was probably the first time I played chamber music with professional musicians. The Winsor concert will only be my second time playing chamber music with professionals, so I’m really looking forward to it.  

What is different about your solo playing versus your chamber playing? Do you approach the music differently?
I guess when I’m playing solo, I’m more free in my sound and the range of colors and dynamics. I can play as loud as I want, but I also have to keep in mind the orchestral sounds that I want to try and imitate. I use my chamber music experience, and my orchestral experience, to try and imitate that range of sounds when I’m playing solo music. Also, in concerti, it’s a combination of chamber music and solo music; I have to be concentrating on maintaining a fluid balance between orchestra and piano, but I also try to lead the orchestra and inspire them to make music in the way that I want to sound. Chamber music is more intimate and more about balance. We inspire each other; the more we pay attention to balance and contrast and character changes, the more exciting the music becomes.

Have you played with an oboe before in a chamber setting?
No, I haven’t. That will definitely be a new experience. I haven’t played with woodwinds or anything besides strings in a chamber setting.

Do you have a favorite instrument or combination that you enjoy playing with?
I always said that if I didn’t play piano, I’d probably try to play the cello. I really like the tone of the instrument.

What are you most looking forward to about this concert/experience?
Being able to collaborate with such great musicians as Mr. Popper Keizer, Ms. Diaz, and Ms. Pearson. All of my experience so far is playing with colleagues my age, which is great because we’re all new at this and trying to get better and better, but I think being able to play with people who already have such great experience in their pockets will be great for me.

Do you find that you are specializing in a period or style so far in your career?
Yeah, my aim would be to able to play all periods of music. I think I’ve been playing a lot of classical and romantic, like Lizst or Chopin, but it would be really great to venture out and try new styles of music, like contemporary. I’ve never played much contemporary other than a little bit of Schoenberg, but nothing really that modern, so that would be a good thing to discover.

How does the repertoire for this concert fit into that picture? Have you played much of this before, or is it new territory?
Actually, I played the Mendelssohn when I was really young, but I haven’t played it since then — probably six or seven years — so it will be a nice piece to get into again, rediscovering new things, and experimenting with it. I’ve never played the Haydn, but I’ve heard it several times on recordings, so yes, I’m familiar with the styles.

What are you most looking forward to in your schedule this year?
A concert next May in Lincoln Center; that will be a very big moment for me. It will be a great experience to play with St. Luke’s Orchestra, and I’m very excited to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto. But I try to think of every concert as extremely important, I always try to do my best. I never think, oh, this is a little concert in a local town, so it’s not important. I always try to think of every concert as maybe the last concert of my life, so I hold myself to a high standard every time I play.

What is your dream gig?
I think my dream concert would be a performance with the Berlin Philharmonic in Germany. That would pretty much do it for me. Any conductor would be great, but I guess Gustavo Dudamel or Zubin Mehta… any great conductor would be amazing. I always dreamed when I was little of playing in all the major concert venues with the great orchestras, and just hearing them on recordings, having CDS of those halls and the performances in those halls was so inspiring to me. It would be a dream come true.

What would you want to do professionally if you weren't a pianist?
Most of my family are doctors, so if I wasn’t a musician, I would probably try medical school or study economics and go to Wall Street [laughs]. Being a doctor is very admirable; they save lives, and they take risks in doing so. It would be good to do that if I wasn’t a musician.

You seem to be motivated by having an impact on people.
Yeah. [laughs]

George Li appears with Winsor Music courtesy of Young Concert Artists, New York. To learn more about George, please visit his YCA page: