George Li cringes a bit when he sees video of his much younger self dazzling audiences with a truly astounding level of pianistic prowess, as he did at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in 2007. He admits, however, that it’s also “fun to go back and see where I was then and where I am now.”
Back then, he was only 11, a child prodigy who displayed an artistry well beyond his years. With the final notes of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 still lingering, the Zankel Hall crowd hopped to its feet and gave him a vigorous standing ovation.
Many more audiences and ovations later, he’s now 26 and an accomplished performer whose precise and soulful pianism has been described as technically masterful and effortlessly elegant. He’ll showcase those qualities in his Orchestra Hall debut March 13 in an SCP Piano recital featuring works by Schumann, Chen and Chopin.
When Li plays, he doesn’t hide his emotions — and people have taken notice. For a YouTube video of his 2018 “Tiny Desk Concert” for National Public Radio, one commenter wrote, “Find someone to look at you the way George Li looks at his piano.”
Li laughs at the mention of the quip. Achieving his current level of mastery hasn’t been all hearts and flowers, he admits. While he never lets us see him sweat, there’s been plenty of perspiring.
“In any kind of process where you’re trying to achieve something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, there’s a lot of struggle and a lot of trial and error and frustration behind the scenes in the practice room,” Li says. “You’re trying to work through things, trying to avoid bad habits, trying to always listen and keep yourself fresh with the piece by analyzing but not overanalyzing it.”
Overwhelmingly, though, there’s also “a lot of passion and love” for his instrument and the music. When he walks onstage, takes his seat on the piano bench and begins playing, it’s palpable.
“As I’ve gotten older,” he says, “the transition from someone who can just play fast to someone who thinks a lot more about what they’re trying to communicate is something I’ve been working on to grow myself as a musician.”
A Boston native with a bachelor’s in English literature from Harvard and a master’s from the New England Conservatory, Li credits his parents with helping to keep him grounded and well-rounded. Music consumes most of his time, but he’s also a huge sports fan and an avid reader whose study of literature “changed my way of approaching music.”
Consequently, he says, he became more focused on what a particular piece of music was trying to say — the “story” it was telling. That made the abstract seem more concrete for him and, he hopes, others.
“The really great writers — like Shakespeare and Wordsworth — are able to play with words so there’s some sort of musicality to the language and it flows better,” Li says. “Savoring those moments and getting into literature from that angle, and then applying it to music and trying to learn different concepts, was really interesting for me.”
Besides conveying some sort of musical narrative arc, Li also strives to keep his interpretations fresh. Doing so doesn’t mean delivering them in a less technically proficient manner, but rather adding his own spin. That freedom of expression is one of many reasons he admires piano masters like his idol Vladimir Horowitz — and it’s something, he says, that can easily fall by the wayside in this era of digital perfection.
“We live in a world that’s so accurate and precise, and as performers, we want to refine everything as much as possible,” Li says. “But sometimes we lose a little bit of creativity.”
Refining is fine, he’s quick to add. As long as it’s not artistically limiting.
“I try to remind myself that whoever is in the audience, a lot of people are hearing me for the first time, so I want to make everything as refreshing as possible,” Li says. “And there’s a really fine line between staying true to the intentions of the composer and making sure that whatever you do is grounded in something that makes sense, but at the same time being able to improvise a little bit and take risks and not be safe.
“When you go to a really good live performance, you feel uplifted. Your emotions kind of go along with the artist and the performance. And so I try to do that as much as I can every time I play.”