TROY -- Pianist Yundi Li continues to amaze. Since his incredible win at the 2000 International Chopin Competition at age 18 when he was the first competitor to take home a gold medal in 15 years and the first Chinese pianist to ever place in the event, Li has carved out a career as an international recitalist and soloist.
Li will give a recital of Chopin, Mussorgsky, Mozart and others on Sunday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
Finding oneself on the world’s stages can be daunting. Li has managed by being very prepared musically and making daring and bold choices. Even his fluency in English, which has a decidedly American accent, is impressive.
“Practice makes perfect,” Li wrote in an e-mail. “I spoke English with other musicians, press, my manager, and I like watching Hollywood movies on the plane. So I learn from practice.”
But it’s Li’s ability to apply himself that has won him the kind of fame that has made him an overnight sensation in China where he’s feted like a pop star. People stop him in the street for his autograph and he has done television commercials.
Former People’s Republic of China President Jiang Zemin, who is known to enjoy Western classical music despite being a Communist Politburo member, has even requested tickets to Li’s concerts with the Chinese National Symphony. Li is also credited with starting a boom in young children taking piano lessons.
From accordion to piano
This ability to work hard surfaced early on. Neither of his parents was musical. His father worked at a state-owned steel company in Sichuan province and his mother worked in a lab. Li’s first instrument was the accordion, which he started at 4. The next year, he won the Chongqing Children’s Accordion Competition. He played for three years before he switched to piano at 7.
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Second and State streets, Troy
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $35, $32
MORE INFO: 273-0038
When he was 9, his parents spent most of their savings to buy him an upright piano. At 12, Li earned himself a place at the top music school in the province. A year later, when his teacher, Dan Zhao Yi, took up a post at the School of Arts in Shenzhen near Hong Kong, the entire family moved to be near him. Li won numerous scholarships to afford the fees, but Li’s mother quit her job to supervise his education.
He also started to compete. At 13, he placed third at the Stravinsky International Youth Competition in Illinois, and two years later won the South Missouri International Youth Piano Competition. At 17, he took third prize at the 1999 International Franz Listz Piano Competition in Utrecht where he made his concerto debut with the local symphony and was a major winner in the China International Piano Competition. He also won the gold prize at the Gina Bachauer Young Artists International Piano Competition in Salt Lake City.
Making a name
By now, Li was used to practicing as much as eight hours a day and had learned to memorize pieces not in terms of their notes but the piece’s structure, its harmonies and how the melodies and phrasing developed. His role models for pianists were Maurizio Pollini of Italy and Krystian Zimerman of Poland, both of them previous winners of the Chopin competition who had gone on to major careers.
In October 2000, he beat out 97 other pianists to win the $25,000 first prize at the Chopin competition. Among the panel of 23 judges was Martha Argerich who had won the competition 35 years earlier. Without dropping a beat, Li used the money to head to Germany to study with Arie Vardi at the Hannover Conservatory of Music.
Three years later, Li made his Carnegie Hall debut as part of Steinway and Sons’ 150th Anniversary Gala and a month later debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His relationship with Steinway continues. Throughout his travels, Steinway dealers try to provide him with a piano to practice on because pianos at concert venues can be quite different and even inadequate.
“I think playing on different pianos is one of the jobs as a professional pianist. We are always sensitive to different pianos’ characteristics, and I make my adjustment accordingly,” he said.
Li has recorded nine discs for Deutsche Grammophon. His most recent is with the Berlin Philharmonic and Seiji Ozawa. His recital on Sunday reflects his desire to expand his repertoire beyond the Chopin and Liszt that have brought him fame. On the program will be four of Chopin’s Mazurkas from Opus 33, a Nocturne in E-flat Major and a Grande Polonaise from Opus 22, Mozart's Sonata No. 10 in C Major, Schumann’s “Widmung from Myrthea,” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The concert is part of a 14-recital North American tour to seven states, Washington, D.C., and Canada.
Priorities in order
With his success has come some discoveries and some change: His parents’ advice to work hard now that he’s successful is a priority, he no longer competes, and he’s especially proud to represent China on the world's stages.
“I never forget my identity as a Chinese. So I love to play some Chinese traditional short pieces as encores in my concerts,” Li said, adding that he’s commissioned a few Chinese composers such as Tan Dun, to compose pieces for him.
Li still plays pingpong to relax and enjoys listening to Justin Timberlake and Robbie Williams on his iPod. And in 2006, he was one of the first group of people to immigrate to Hong Kong under the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme, which is a quota-based policy to attract talented people to settle in Hong Kong to enhance the city's economic competitiveness in the global markets.