There is no question 16-year-old pianist George Li has prodigious talent. No wonder the New York-based Young Concert Artists organization sponsored him in his debut at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Tuesday. (YCA has also helped jump-start the careers of such artists as Emanuel Ax, Pinchas Zukerman and Dawn Upshaw.) Li’s performance left no doubt that he combines staggering technical prowess, a sense of command and depth of expression.
The program opened with Carl Czerny’s Variations on violinist Pierre Rode’s “La Ricordanza,” Op. 33, followed by Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstuecke, Op. 19, and Beethoven’s Sonata (Appassionata), Op. 57, No.23. After intermission Li offered two vignettes from Ravel’s Miroirs and a whirlwind of Liszt works — the Concert Etudes Waldesrauschen and Gnomenreigen, the third “Consolation,” and the second “Hungarian Rhapsody.” (This year marks the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth; Liszt studied with Czerny, who studied with Beethoven — three of the composers featured in this program.)
After a thoughtful version of the Czerny, Li turned to Schoenberg’s enigmatic miniatures, played with finely measured gradations of touch and attention to structural silent pauses. With his supple wrists, Li never lost sight of Beethoven’s distinctive phrasing and aura of foreboding fury while the music charges through demonic eruptions of contrasting dynamics and tempos — and fragmented themes.
Li was adept at delineating descriptive music, as in Ravel’s avian scene “Oiseaux tristes,” the rippling right-hand figures of Liszt’s “Waldesrauschen” and even the flurries of repeated notes imitating a gypsy cimbalom in “Hungarian Rhapsody.” The Liszt piece that stood out Tuesday was the third “Consolation,” in which Li underscored the lyricism of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words” and Chopin’s “Nocturnes.”
His understandable temptation to grandstand aside, a more balanced, instructive assessment of Li’s accomplishments might have been revealed if he had offered, for example, a Bach fugue instead of this classic debut’s program of mostly old warhorses.
Porter is a freelance writer.