Piano Virtuoso George Li Rises Above the ‘Child Prodigy’ Label

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George Li performs with the San Francisco Symphony on Aug. 6 and 7.  (Simon Fowler)

One might presume that having rare abilities leads to inevitable success in classical music, but that’s not always the case. As the music critic Harold Schonberg sagaciously wrote in 1992, “Not all prodigies develop into great performing artists, but on the other hand one cannot become a great performing artist without having been a prodigy.”

If the United States has produced any homegrown piano prodigy of note in recent memory, George Li of Massachusetts would appear to fit that bill.

On Aug. 6 at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, Li, 25, performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491 with conductor Xian Zhang and the San Francisco Symphony. The program, which gets an encore Aug. 7 at Stanford University’s Frost Amphitheater, also includes William Grant Still’s Mother and Child and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, K. 543.

Li’s musical history has no shortage of stupefying anecdotes. At age 7, he was navigating the most treacherous of Chopin Etudes, the barometer of modern, virtuosic piano playing. By 11, there was an appearance on The Martha Stewart Show. And four years after that, the White House called, and Li refined his talents before an audience of President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“It’s funny. People tell me, ‘I used to watch your YouTube videos!’ But I never really saw myself as a prodigy,” Li says. “My parents kept telling me to keep working, that without diligence and hard work, there’s only so far talent can get you. And thankfully, I took that to heart. I was privileged to have great people, great teachers around me, and with my passion, was able to enter an environment where I could grow my mind as well.”

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Wha Kyung Byun, Li’s principal teacher, recalls first hearing the pianist when he was 11 years old. “I’ve heard many, many prodigies, but my first impression when George touched the piano was that he and the instrument became one,” she says. “The instrument ignites something in him, and music just burst out and came to life.”

The transition from prodigy to artist, historically speaking, has never been quite so straightforward. Schonberg’s perceptive remark, echoed by Byun, doesn’t shirk the reality of failure for most wunderkinds, a path laden with pitfalls, both musical and commercial. For every Josef Hofmann and Martha Argerich, there are cases of Ruth Slenczynska and Dimitris Sgouros—pianists of high natural fluency, but artists who, for one reason or another, fail to sustain the imagination of the public or take ahold of their own.

“Any talented child can mimic,” says Byun, a professor at the New England Conservatory. “I had a young student, a girl, who was a true prodigy. She could play anything. But she got bored, things became mechanical. If you don’t have that curiosity, that fire, you cannot reach the next level. It just dies.”

Perhaps the greatest prodigy in history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, braved an arduous transition himself. He penned his beloved Concerto No. 24—a favorite of Byun’s that Li will perform this week—at age 30, just five years before his death. It reveals a brimming imagination fueled by industriousness and the desire to create.

“What’s so special about Mozart is there’s a freedom of imagination there,” Li says. “A lot of it has to be pure talent, but it’s the mental capacity—and not just the intellect, [but] the artistic freedom to create so much. His music is written in the classical form, bound by all of its rules, but it’s always changing—almost improvisatory—and the sheer amount of ideas that flows from the music is just astounding.”

“I started learning the concerto in May, and there’s this gorgeous balance of elegance, tragedy and sorrow,” Li continues. “Professor Byun painted a scene for me of an orphan on the street looking for his or her parents. It’s a vulnerable and tragic scene, but very beautiful.”

All musical prodigies are, in essence, artistic orphans, vulnerable to the interests and whims of the world, and always in need of esoteric guidance. The few who find artistic nourishment in the form of knowledgeable mentors and sensible benefactors are the fortunate ones who stand any chance of going further.

“You can have the seed of the most beautiful plant, but you have to nourish it,” Byun says. “I love Einstein’s quotation, ‘Knowledge without imagination is nothing.’ That’s where George is very different: he has that fire. Of course, he is very disciplined, very talented, but he also has a great appetite for learning things beyond music.”

As if otherworldly talent, devotion and inspired artistic guidance aren’t hard enough to come by, the fortunate ones of Asian descent face an additional hurdle. They must also learn to navigate prejudices and racial stereotypes that exist within the field to this day.

“I’ve had many severe moments,” reflects Li, whose parents are from China. “It’s really important to not racially profile anyone and make generalizations. They’re not helpful. Lang Lang’s musical expression is completely different from Yuja [Wang]’s, which is different from Seong-Jin Cho’s, which is different from mine. Everybody has a different statement.”

“As Asians, we have parents who are very much helping us, pushing us to grow,” he says. “We do everything very seriously in music, so of course it’s hurtful when it’s all taken as a joke, or when people say, ‘Oh, you play very fast’ or ‘like robots with a metronome.’ Those remarks aren’t helpful.”

In spite of these challenges, Li is, without question, a marvel of success. An English Literature major at Harvard, he won the silver medal at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, cementing a career that for decades has appeared on the verge of exploding.

“George can do anything at the piano, truly, but he’s very humble,” Byun says. “When he learns how to produce a new sound at the piano, his eyes really shine. ‘I see it! I hear it!’ he tells me excitedly. And that ignites something within me. That’s really what music is all about: music reveals the very best things in life. Otherwise, life is just breathing. It’s all just routine.”

Perhaps propensity for growth, which leads to freedom of imagination, is the talent that trumps all.

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George Li performs with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall on Aug. 6 and at Stanford's Frost Amphitheater on Aug. 7. Details here