21-Year-Old Pianist George Li On Performing With The LA Phil On Opening Night

09.28.16
George Li
Forbes

While most philharmonic orchestras begin their seasons with the works of Beethoven, Brahms, or Mahler, the Los Angeles Philharmonic tried something different this year. Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel began his eighth season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a night celebrating 20th century American jazz. The performance was entitled “Gershwin and the Jazz Age” and started the philharmonic’s thirteenth season at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Included in the concert were the works of Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, Cole Porter and, of course, George Gershwin. Broadway greats Brian Mitchell Stokes (“Kiss Me Kate”) and Megan Hilty (“Wicked”) took the stage at times to sing numbers from “Kiss Me Kate,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Oh, Kay!” and “Shall We Dance,” as well as Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light.”

Adam Faze: First of all, congratulations on such an astounding performance. What an honor it must have been to perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on opening night. How did the opportunity come about?

George Li: It was so unreal, and felt like a dream! I was notified about the concert about a month ago, while I was in Edinburgh playing a recital. I remember my manager was talking to me about it, and at first I couldn't comprehend what she was saying. When it finally dawned upon me, I was still in utter shock and disbelief.

AF: What was it like working with Gustavo Dudamel? Had you known him from before?

GL: Again, it was a true honor, privilege and dream to be able to work with the maestro. Actually, I first met him when I was about 11, when he came to visit Boston with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. I did an audition for him, and I remember how kind of a person he was, and how he encouraged me to keep going and to always strive for higher levels. We were supposed to play together in Venezuela shortly after that, but things didn't work out. Because of this, I feel even more grateful, and feel that this is truly a dream come true!

Los Angeles Philharmonic Association - Walt Disney Concert Hall Opening Night Gala  Photos by Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging
Los Angeles Philharmonic Association - Walt Disney Concert Hall Opening Night Gala. Photos by Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging

AF: You're only 21 years old, and yet you've already played with some of the greatest orchestras in the world, won the Silver Medal at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition, and even played for President Obama and Angela Merkel at the White House. How did this all begin?

GL: I started at the age of four. My parents are avid lovers of classical music, but don't play because they didn't have any opportunities while they grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China. But, I have an older sister, and when I was growing up she was playing the piano. I guess it was a combination of me watching her practice and going to her lessons, with being taken to many concerts in Boston and listening to the classical music radio station every night before falling asleep, that gently pushed me in the direction of starting the piano.

AF: In the next few weeks, you'll be performing in Russia, Germany, and Connecticut. What's it like to be touring the world as a renowned pianist at the age of 21?

GL: It's unbelievable! It's really amazing to be able to go around and experience new cultures and meet different people, and then get to play for them and share my music with them. At the same time, it's quite challenging in terms of having to live two lives at once - I'm still in my Junior year studying English at Harvard University - but regardless I love it tremendously.

AF: Who are your biggest musical inspirations?

GL: There are so many great musicians that I aspire to become and who inspire me, but my number one favorite pianist is Vladimir Horowitz, for his otherworldly artistry, for his ability to grab everyone's attention with just a single note... There are just so many amazing things he does that give me inspiration!

AF: Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years?

GL: Ideally, I'd love to keep performing and playing for as many people as possible, to play around the world with amazing orchestras and conductors like Maestro Dudamel and the LA Phil, and in those countless fantastic halls. It always brings the most joy and energy to me when the music that I play is able to touch and change the lives of others.

AF: There's one question everyone will be asking themselves when they read this. How long do you practice for each day?

GL: On school days, I try to get four or even five hours a day, and on weekends and holidays I practice for about seven to eight hours.

AF: What's your proudest achievement thus far?

GL: This one ranks quite high at the top, as does winning Silver at the Tchaikovsky, but I think I have to say playing at the White House for the German State Dinner.  There are no words to properly describe that experience, and it was one of those moments that I wished could last forever, when in reality it passed by within the snap of a finger.  An unforgettable evening to say the least!
 
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