From the Boston Globe:
'The heart is always behind the fingers'
By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, 4/10/2004
Pianist Yundi Li isn't married, but he does wear a plain gold ring on one of his agile fingers.
When he arrived in Salt Lake City in 1999 to participate in the Gina Bachauer Young Artists International Competition, his host family gave him the ring for good luck. Li won the competition, and he says he's never taken the ring off since. "It is my ring of power," he says, smiling, "just like in the movies."
A year later, at the age of 18, he won the gold medal in the prestigious Chopin competition in Warsaw. The competition is held every five years, and in the previous two the jury had declined to award a first prize, so Li's honor was noted all over the pianistic community. It launched him on a world career, including a contract with Deutsche Grammophon, which has recorded him playing Chopin and Liszt -- composers that Li will play in his first Boston recital, tonight at 8 in Jordan Hall. Li's first two recordings document an unusual combination of brains and brawn, poetic temperament and romantic fire.
Li came to Boston a few days early to practice and settle in. His promotional photographs give him a glam, androgynous Greta Garbo look; in person, he's more like a serious-minded math prodigy, and he's still wearing braces on his teeth. He knows what he's accomplished, but he also knows how long a journey lies ahead.
Born in 1982 in Chongqing, in central China, Li came to the piano through an unusual route. His first instrument was the accordion. At age 4 he heard an accordionist when he was out shopping with his mother and insisted on getting one. At 5, he won first prize in a local accordion competition -- "for young people," he says. "When I was 7, I changed to the piano, which is very late, but I was lucky because I had already learned a little about the keyboard. Once I started on the piano, my progress was very fast, and now I have fogotten how to play the accordion."
At 9, Li began studying with the teacher he remained with until after he won the Chopin competition, Dan Zhao Yi; when Dan moved to Shenzhen in southern China, Li and his family followed.
"My teacher and my city, which was a boomtown, gave me very good support -- they paid for me to go to the competitions, starting in 1995, when I was 11 years old," Li says. "I never went to a competition thinking that I must win. I was just there to play, to show how I play and feel the music. For me the music must come first; afterwards the fingers are coming. The heart is always behind the fingers."
It was at the Liszt competition in the Netherlands, at age 16, that Li performed the Liszt Sonata for the first time. It has since become one of his signature pieces (he has recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon and will play it tonight). "This is a piece that includes everything of piano playing in it -- technique, passion, emotion, and structure," he says. "It is a long 30 minutes, and you have to know how to hold it together. I feel I have grown up with this piece, and through it. Already it is different from the recording, because I have had more experiences in my life; I play it with my heart, with how I feel."
Today home base for Li is in Hannover, Germany, where he still regularly works with his current teacher, the Israeli pianist Arie Vardi. Li plays about 60 concerts a year, all in about six months. "I think it is important to give half a year to study and half a year to play," Li says. "For half the year, I do not give concerts. I try to look at books and to learn new repertory. I practice six or seven hours a day, no more. Now I perform seven or eight concertos; I don't want to play 20 different concertos in one season. I want everything to be ready, so I can give my best emotion and make good music for the audience."
This kind of thinking is also part of the strategy of Columbia Artists Management, which is structuring Li's career. According to Sharon Kim, Li's associate manager at the company, "our plan is for him to play only the most important recital halls and orchestral engagements. We work with Deutsche Grammophon so he will play music, like the Chopin Scherzos he is playing in Boston, that he will subsequently record. We consider every invitation and how it makes sense, and we do not want to overexpose him." She says they want to work with orchestras and conductors with whom he has an affinity, and are in discussion with Seiji Ozawa and James Levine about future projects.
Local pride plays a role in Li's extraordinary popularity in Asia; his debut disc sold more than 100,000 copies in Japan, Korea, and China, countries where Li regularly plays. Says Kim, "In Asia, they treat him like a pop star. When he gets off a plane he is surrounded by reporters who want to know about his love life."
Through an extraordinary coincidence, the two most prominent young pianists to emerge in recent years are both the same age and both Chinese -- Li and Lang Lang. The two never met in China, and in the West they have been taking radically different career directions. Lang Lang plays two or three times as many concerts as Li, makes the rounds of the talk shows, and was featured on the soundtrack of an episode of the CBS show "Joan of Arcadia." Piano connoisseurs recoil from Lang Lang's self-promotion and some unmusical aspects of his playing, though the pianist does bring people into the concert hall who have never been there before.
The paths of the two pianists crossed for the first time a year ago in Germany. Lang has spoken patronizingly of Li in at least one interview: He told the Canadian music magazine La Scena Musicale last February, "His career is not big yet. I hope he will have a big career. . . . I think it is still very rare to become famous. The world has so many pianists. I am very fortunate." Li is more circumspect when asked about Lang: "We met last year and I think we are friends. I have heard his first records and I think they are quite good."
Li says he is primarily interested in the long haul: "I don't like to go like the express train. I think right now I should make only one record a year; after 20 years, that is 20 records, and that is a lot. The way to become an artist is step by step by step."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.