It's been a big year for pianist George Li, and for someone who had already performed at the White House for Barack Obama and Angela Merkel by age 15, that's saying something.
In May 2015, George made his Lincoln Center/New York concerto debut with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and Gerard Schwarz, to rave reviews by the New York Times. That July, he took home a silver medal from the Tchaikovsky Competition, setting off a chain of high profile recital and concerto bookings that have continued to intensify his popularity at home and abroad. And just this March, George was one of five recipients of a $25,000 Avery Fisher Career Grant.
Did we mention that he's also in the second year of a dual degree program at Harvard University and the New England Conservatory?
We are delighted that he made time not only to perform on the final concert of Winsor Music's 2015-16 season, but also to give this interview. Don't miss your chance to hear him live at St. Paul's Church in Brookline on Tuesday, May 24 at 7pm.
It’s been a year and a half since we spoke: a lot has happened since then! In our last interview, I asked you what you were most looking forward to, and here’s what you said: "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.” Before we get into everything else: how did that go?
Yeah, that was great experience! It was my orchestral debut at Lincoln Center, and I had a great time.
Speaking of Tchaikovsky, how about that competition? Congratulations on your incredible placement. What sticks with you the most about that whole experience?
It was a life-changing experience for me. It was really something else. It was of course, extremely stressful, for the whole month; it was not only hard physically, but it was a mental marathon as well. I guess what helped, and made it easier for me, was the kindness of the people in Russia. They were all great listeners, and I felt an amazing chemistry with the audience, so I didn't have to just worry about the competition and the stresses of it. When I played, I just felt really comfortable on stage, and I felt like I could really communicate myself to them. That made the mental aspect much easier.
What is life like for you as a full-time (dual-degree!) college student and a high-profile, internationally sought-after performer? How do you prioritize, make decisions about where your time goes?
It's tough, but of course, the first thing I prioritize is music. It is tough to balance out when I can get my work in, and if I can complete everything by the deadline. But, when it gets to those crunch times, then I prioritize: I have to play this concert first, I have to practice for that concert, and then I go from there and just do my best and try to survive. Academically, for me, it’s not as much about the grade as it is about learning something. That’s why I wanted to come to the Harvard/NEC program. As long as I feel like I learned something and was able to get something out of my education, I’m pretty happy.
What are you studying in the Harvard half of your degree?
I’m majoring in English literature.
Any particular area of focus?
I’m currently in the elective program, so it’s more of a free choice of courses, as long as you’re within English literature. Last semester I took English romantic poetry, and this year I’m taking “Shakespeare after Hamlet” and “The Modern Novel,” a course that focuses on James Joyce and Dostoevsky. They’re all really good classes and I’ve learned so much. I feel that English and music are really deeply intertwined. Studying English has really helped me grow musically and as a person just over these last few months, which has been great.
Are you sleeping at all?
There are times when I don’t sleep as much as I should, but that’s college life. Everyone deals with moments like this!
Have you done much chamber music since we saw you last?
I did chamber music during the fall semester of this school year, but instead of the usual piano trio/quartet/quintet, I was in a duo piano group with one of my best friends and fellow pianist Alex Beyer. We played the Rachmaninoff Suite No. 1 for two pianos, and it was an awesome time. I also played the Brahms Piano Quintet as a component for a piano competition at the Verbier Festival (the Vendome Competition), and I had the privilege of playing it with the Jerusalem String Quartet, which was an unbelievable experience.
So you’ll be performing that same Brahms Piano Quintet for this concert. What's your history with him? You mentioned that you played it for the competition, but have there been any other memorable encounters with his music?
Yeah, I think most of the stuff that I've played of his has been chamber music, actually. I played the Brahms Trio in C major and the Brahms piano quartet in G minor. I'd definitely love to explore his music much more, especially the solo repertoire. Most of my experiences have been with his chamber music, but even from that aspect, his music is so profound and deep. It's something to do with his harmonies but also with the manner that he composes in terms of texture and sonorities that feels so heartfelt. The sounds that he gets from those harmonies are very special indeed.
You mentioned that you recently took a course on English romantic poetry, so I'm wondering how that course, or any of the work you've done in that era, informed your approach to Brahms now, after having taken those courses.
I think that reading poetry and literature helps with music making because they’re so intertwined— I believe that literature and poetry is about how we verbalize feelings, capturing any given moment and describing it in great detail, with finesse and nuance, preserving that particular memory and making it timeless. I feel like understanding that is so relatable to our lives, and therefore reading literature can really help us understand why we feel a certain way when there is a spectacular sunset, for example, which is really inspiring and nurturing for our soul. Applying that understanding to music really helps when you approach, for example, a passage in Brahms, when it requires this ethereal imagery or feeling. You can draw from moments that you've read in literature, which is basically a verbalization of moments you've experienced yourself. It's amazing how wonderful writers were able to put any moment into words in such an accessible and inspiring manner. It really helps me to use what I've learned from literature and apply it to music.
I know that there are many musicians who were particularly drawn to music precisely for its nonverbal qualities, for the more abstract approach to emotion. I'm curious: for you, how do you relate the more specific, verbal expressions that you work with in literature to the non-verbal expressions in music?
Like you said, music is very abstract, and very open to interpretation. For me, however, that understanding of literature helps me to further understand music. It’s of course not a word-for-word parallel to music, but there’s a mutual sense of understanding between music and literature where both are able to evoke all aspects of humanity with such clarity and profundity, and it’s these moments that are so moving. Maybe, in a sense, literature is like a stepping stone to understanding music.
So you have been traveling all over the world to perform. I'm wondering if you have a favorite travel experience from the past year?
Yes, I just came back from two weeks of touring, which was very tiring, of course, but one day, at five in the morning, I was about to travel from London to Switzerland, and at the airport I saw this beautiful sunrise that was just incomparable to anything I'd ever seen before. There was a mixture of beauty and a sense of the overpowering, which really struck me. It totally cleared my head and woke me up for the rest of the day!
Have there been any particular cities that you've visited that you thought you might like to go back for a more extended period of time, or maybe even thought: "I wish I could live here!"?
In general, when I play in cities abroad, I don't really get to explore as much as I would like, because I'm always either practicing or resting. I never really get a good chunk of a day to explore and walk through a town. When I was in Freiburg a couple of weeks ago, driving through the countryside, it was so beautiful, and walking through the streets just to get to the concert hall and around really showed the character of the place, and just I wish I could get to know Freiburg better in the future!
And when you come back to Boston, is there anything in particular that you look forward to?
Whenever I look out of the window at the skyline, just seeing familiar things like the Prudential Center or Fenway Park, it just brings an overwhelming sense of finally being home. It always feels so good to be back, and even just seeing Storrow Drive contains this wonderful feeling to be back home.
Well, we're always glad to have you back, and we're really looking forward to having you on our final concert of this season. Thank you so much for your time today.
Thanks, I'm really looking forward to it as well.
Biography from GeorgeLiPianist.com
"Silver medalist in the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition and winner of the prestigious XIV Concours International Grand Prix Animato 2014 Paris, George Li (黎卓宇) is regarded as one of the world's most talented and creative young pianists. His astonishing technique, distinctive tonal quality, and exceptional musicality have earned him consistent critical acclaim (New York Times, Washington Post, International Piano Magazine, Toronto Star, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Music Intelligencer) and enthusiastic audience response worldwide for his solo recitals, orchestral collaborations, and chamber music performances.
In addition to winning the Grand Prix Animato Piano Competition (with the Schumann Prize, the Brahms Prize and the Audience Prize) in December 2014, George won third prize in the 2015 US Chopin Competition, and second prize in the 2014 Vendome Prize. In 2012, George received the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award, becoming its youngest recipient. With his exceptional musical gifts being recognized by Alfred Brendel, Dimitri Bashkirov, and Menahem Pressler, George was the winner of the Tabor Foundation Piano Award at the 2012 Verbier Academy. In 2010, George won first prize in the prestigious Young Concert Artists International audition and since that time has been under management of the YCA. In 2010 he also won first prize at the Inaugural Cooper International Piano Competition. In 2008 George won second prize at the Gina Bachauer International Piano Junior Artist Competition. In 2011 George performed at a State dinner for President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House.
In 2005, 9-year old George made his first orchestral debut as a soloist with the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra. Thereafter, he has frequently appeared as a soloist with many symphony orchestras, including the Cleveland Orchestra, Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Albany Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Pro Musica, Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, Spartanburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Miami Symphony Orchestra, Nordic Chamber Orchestra (Sweden), the Norrkoping Orchestra (Sweden), Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Lexington Symphony Orchestra, Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra “I Solisti di Perugia” (Italy), Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, Waltham Symphony Orchestra, Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Boise Philharmonic Orchestra, Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, The Orchestra at Temple Square, the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, the Akron Symphony Orchestra, the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (Canada), and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
An active recitalist and orchestral soloist, George has performed in venues throughout the world, including the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), the Musikverein (Vienna), Rudolfinum’s Dvorak Hall (Czech Republic), Severance Hall, Symphony Hall, Jordan Hall, Mechanics Hall, The Tabernacle, Alice Tully Hall of Lincoln Center, Merkin Hall, and the Kennedy Center.
George is also an enthusiastic chamber musician. Since the age of 9 George has regularly performed in chamber music concerts, with repertoire ranging from Haydn to Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich, and Bolcom. As a member of the Vivace Trio, George performed for members of the US Congress on Capitol Hill. He has also played chamber music concerts with The Boston Trio and in the Winsor Chamber Music Series.
George has frequently been featured as guest artist on National Public Radio (WGBH). He also appeared on CBS TV (the Liz Walker Show and the Martha Stewart Show). At the age of 11, George performed at Carnegie Hall as a featured pianist in the TV series produced by From the Top. George has participated in numerous world-renowned summer festivals including the Verbier Academy (Switzerland), the Miami International Piano Festival, the Southeastern Piano Festival, and the Gilmore Keyboard Festival. He has had master classes with renowned pianists Alfred Brendel, Emmanuel Ax, and Richard Goode.
A resident of Lexington, Massachusetts, George Li graduated from Walnut Hill School for the Arts and the Preparatory School of New England Conservatory, where he studied piano with Ms. Wha Kyung Byun (卞和暻). George’s previous piano teachers include Mrs. Dorothy Shi (杨镜钏) [from the ages of 4 to 12] and Mr. Chengzong Yin (殷承宗) [ages 7 to 12].
George is currently enrolled in the dual degree program at Harvard University and the New England Conservatory, continuing his piano studies with Ms. Wha Kyung Byun as well as Maestro Russell Sherman, a renowned pianist and Distinguished Artist in residence at the New England Conservatory."
Learn more at http://www.georgelipianist.com/