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Yundi Li: East Meets West at CCM

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Apr 19, 2005 - 5:21:00 PM in reviews_2005

(first published in The Cincinnati Post April 18, 2005)

What happens when east meets west?

Pow! Chinese pianist Yundi Li, whose mastery of Chopin won him - in 2000, at the age of 18 - the first grand prize to be awarded by Warsaw’s Chopin International Piano Competition in 15 years.

Li, who performed with the Cincinnati Symphony in 2003, at Music Hall and on tour in Japan, made his Cincinnati recital debut Sunday afternoon in Corbett Auditorium at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

Sponsor was the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Music Society in celebration of its 10th anniversary.

Now 22, Li is already a star, especially in Asia, where his popularity has reached delirious proportions. The phenomenon struck Corbett Auditorium Sunday, as listeners jumped to their feet following his powerful performance of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, demanding an encore ("Sun Flowers" by Ling-Yao) and forming a long line into CCM’s Bauer Room, where Li signed programs and CDs after the concert. Cameras flashed as fans young and old gathered around and posed for photos with the charismatic pianist.

Geographic and stylistic boundaries fall away with Li, who opened with Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K.330. There was a lightness and crystalline purity about it that recalled the old saw about Mozart being too easy for children, too hard for grownups. Just on the cusp himself, Li seems to have preserved that childlike quality.

The 21 miniatures that make up Schumann’s "Carnaval" were discretely sketched, from the grand "Preambule" to the final "Marche des Davidsbundler contre les Philistins," the composer’s bellicose jibe at the musical "Philistines" (conservatives) of his day. Passing in paint box review in between were Pierrot, Arlequin, Schumann’s future wife Clara, even Chopin and Paganini.

Highpoint of the recital was the Liszt, an astonishment for its tonal power and technical virtuosity, achieved without showmanship or gratuitous display. Li doesn’t have to show off. His aristocratic bearing and absorption in the music are magnetic in themselves, each motion of his hands and feet calibrated for precise musical effect. Whether projecting a single note or making the hall resound with fists full, he commanded attention in the challenging work and took his listeners on a thrilling musical ride.