At Kennedy Center, pianist Ji shows that he has some growing up to do

December 4, 2013

Well, let’s see: We had Elvis, Cher, Madonna, Prince, and now we have . . . Ji.

Pop-star narcissism in the classical world is usually ill-advised, and in any case is best attempted when the musician has established, world-class talent. Ji, a 22-year-old Juilliard student, made his Washington debut Tuesday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, presented by the Young Concert Artists.

He is a pianist with an impressive keyboard command, but he is still searching for an authentic musical voice. And until he finds one, the presentation comes off as a bit much. From his two-letter name to his appearance (black open-collar shirt, sleeves rolled up to display either his well-defined forearm musculature or his tattoos or both), to the generic quality of his playing in the classical repertoire, Ji has some growing up to do.

I’ve nothing but praise for Ji’s fearless taming of Corigliano’s “Etude Fantasy,” a musical tsunami that left the audience pinned back against the wall. Despite all its musical anachronisms, the same goes for the Bach-Busoni Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564, where he drew organ-like sonorities out of the instrument, playing forcefully without any sense of pounding. Ravel’s “La Valse” was also a tour de force, with admirable clarity in the opening pages and the painting of musical pictures even in the most difficult passages.

But Schubert’s “Impromptu in B-flat” lacked architecture: The variations sounded like separate pieces. And in the Bach Partita No. 1, Ji seemed to feel that steady time and a projection of long lines sufficed. But the music didn’t have any metrical feel, the notes kind of wafting along in space. And why so few repeats? And why was the Gigue so brutal?


Musician Ji performs at the Kennedy Center. (Christian Steiner)

I’d like to think my impressions would be the same had he dressed appropriately and had the program mentioned his last name. But packaging decisions are ultimately up to the artist, and only time will tell if the public will warm to Ji’s.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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