NPR Music Slingshot Artist George Li On His 'Sensible Route' To Success : Deceptive Cadence The young musician, whose career has begun to fully blossom, charts his own course, with successful stops at the Tchaikovsky Competition and Harvard University.
NPR logo

George Li's 'Sensible Route' To Piano Prominence

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/581675147/587502722" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
George Li's 'Sensible Route' To Piano Prominence

George Li's 'Sensible Route' To Piano Prominence

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/581675147/587502722" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF LISZT'S HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY NO. 2)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're hearing a performance by George Li, an artist to keep an ear on. He gave his first public concert at age 10. He received a silver medal in a famed Russian competition at 15. And now the still-young pianist performs with some of the world's great orchestras. Here's NPR's Tom Huizenga.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: George Li is 22 years old now, and he sounds like a typical college student.

GEORGE LI: I got up, I guess, at around 9 o'clock, and then I went to class. It was an English class on gender and representation.

HUIZENGA: Wait a minute - an English class when you've got a career as a concert pianist? George Li, who studies at Harvard, likes to chart his own path.

LI: At one point, it kind of dawned upon me how close music and literature are together. And so it's kind of helped me understand music even deeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF CHOPIN'S PIANO SONATA NO. 2 IN B-FLAT MINOR)

HUIZENGA: From George Li's debut album, that's a sonata by Chopin, a composer close to Li's heart. It was Chopin's music that earned Li the top prize at the Cooper Competition at Oberlin Conservatory when he was just 14. I surprised him with a little tape from that final round victory performance.

LI: I can't even find that performance myself (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF CHOPIN'S PIANO SONATA NO. 2 IN B-FLAT MINOR)

LI: (Laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

LI: Yeah. I mean, it definitely was a very energetic performance. I definitely feel differently how I approach the piece now.

HUIZENGA: How would you approach it differently now?

LI: Probably more refined if I played it now (laughter). And for me, I just had, like, a couple minutes of cringing just now. But it was good.

HUIZENGA: But there's no cringing from critics when they hear George Li play. They're calling him a major talent. One thing that sets him apart is that for all of his, quote, "mesmerizing technique," he's not just an empty showman. His mind, they note, is well-attuned to the nuances of the score. Li's album, released last fall, opens with a sonata by Haydn, and his subtle touch makes the music sparkle.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF HAYDN'S PIANO SONATA IN B MINOR, HOB. XVI:32)

LI: Imagine, like, the image of champagne bubbles or just that sound when, like, champagne pours into the glass like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF HAYDN'S PIANO SONATA IN B MINOR, HOB. XVI:32)

HUIZENGA: George Li was born near Boston. His parents came to the U.S. from China in the 1980s. They had few opportunities to hear classical music growing up in the Cultural Revolution. Li began playing the piano at age 4 and thought of it only as a hobby. But one day when he was 11, a Beethoven piano concerto changed everything.

LI: All of a sudden, like, in the middle of the performance, I felt different. I was kind of transported in some other reality. And I felt all these emotions within the piece and within myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S PIANO SONATA NO. 6 IN F MAJOR)

LI: After that moment, I was like - wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

HUIZENGA: And fortunately for George Li fans, that's likely to be a very long time.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LI PERFORMANCE OF LISZT'S HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY NO. 2)

INSKEEP: NPR Music is featuring exceptional up-and-coming artists for a feature called Slingshot, and George Li is one of them. Learn more about Slingshot artists at nprmusic.org.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.