You can't help but look at Mr. Li. In fact, you almost have to do a double take. From first sight, George Li looks no older than twelve. With a stocky build, and chubby cheeks, there's no reason to see him as anything more than an ordinary kid. That is, until he plays the piano.
George Li is sixteen, and well, your average piano prodigy. We’re talking bona fide genius. Discovered at the age of six, Li has performed at the White House, the Kennedy Center, and with philharmonic symphonies and orchestras across the globe. And by globe, I’m not exaggerating…the US, Canada, Germany, China, Venezuela, Italy…the list goes on. It is quite easy to feel unaccomplished in the presence of such a young and vibrant talent.
I had the pleasure of seeing (or might I say, hearing) Mr. Li perform this past Sunday with my mother at the Vancouver Playhouse. The concert was presented by the Vancouver Recital Society and featured pieces by Czerny, Schoenberg, Beethoven, Ravel, and Liszt.
By no means am I a music master, or do I claim to know the piano greats through and through. However, I am discerning. Music, while universal, is above all, emotive, transporting and captivating. When played well, it is simply beautiful.
George Li did just that. His grasp of the music is almost mind-boggling, be it that he is so young. However, the label of child prodigy is easily forgotten once you are lullabied by the melodies and enthralled by the richness of sound.
I am not a fan of Schoenberg. So while Li played it flawlessly, the six pieces in my mind were slow and painful. And yet, his musical selections were well chosen. They showcased a piano’s true range of emotion…may it be light and airy, playful and imaginative, fast and spastic, slow and melodic or moody and dark.
Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso (Mirroirs) was by far my favourite. It was mischievous and whimsical and perfectly played. As was the entire two hour performance. Li’s twist on Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 was an unexpected plus, as were his three encores. His renditions of La Campanella by Liszt and the Chinese folk song Happy Days were a welcomed departure from his set pieces, and in some way, more representative of his style as a pianist.
After the concert there was an informal Q&A session with our star.
He lives in Boston and loves baseball. He attends an art school and practices four hours a day on weekdays and seven on weekends. He prefers classical and romantic pieces, and shares the advice of his parents and teachers, that no matter what happens, you must keep going. Before a concert, he rehearses, then sits alone and thinks about the music. After a performance, “I relax, have some fun and eat something.” And yet, despite his tux and patent leather shoes and surprisingly deep voice, he is just a kid. I want to ask him what it is like to be called a prodigy but by the time I raise my hand, the Q&A is over.