Saturday evening, June 7th, eighteen-year-old George Li astounded a good crowd at Kansas City's Folly Theater in a free Discovery Concert program for the Harriman-Jewell Series. Astounded? The accompanying slide show displays some finger blur; it is, a dark room. But the naked eyes could only see a haze above the keyboard, during some of the faster section, where one is accustomed hands and fingers.
Mr. Li displayed remarkable discipline in the first piece, "Prelude and Fugue No. 16 in g minor," by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 885. The beginning is marked Largo (slow and broad) the notes are in a dotted rhythm (French Style) but, in Bach's music, that does not indicate swing. George Li did not swing, did not rush, maintained a humorless, strict tempo, without rubato. As the speed of the notes increased through the piece, Li did not allow bad habits of personal improvisation to intrude; this was, after all Bach. The decorative figures, as they occurred, seemed effortless, and did not disturb the flow of the melody, just decorated, as intended. There are conventions of alternating legato/staccato notes to help keep contrapuntal melodies distinct, which Mr. Li used effectively.
The two-movement Sonata No. 32 in c minor, Op 111, of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) left some of the composer's friends in the early 18220s feeling cheated because it had not enough movements. Later musicologists credit the work with having the best of Beethoven's writing on display. George Li followed the moods from sombre, even sinister, to flighty, and demonstrated how peaceful a slightly accompanied folk tune can be. Beethoven had a history of making singable arrangements of folk music and simple songs, which habit served later as a welcome pause to some of his most frenzied sections. Mr. Li used them, without anxiety, to good advantage.
Sergei Rachmaninov (1 April 1873 -- 28 March 1943) - Variations on a Theme of Corelli (1931) a standard part of the modern piano repertoire, was not received well early on, and (according to notes writer, Dr. Richard E. Rodda) Rachmaninoff would judge how much of the twenty variations to play by the level of audience coughing. There must have been little coughing last Saturday; by all appearances, Mr. Li played the whole thing. One of the challenges, Mr. Li met, of playing variations, is to think like the composer and, if you will, play along. If the composer wants dancing Cossacks, make them twirl, if a blanket of starlings twisting in the gentle breeze, do not advertise how many notes per millisecond you are pounding out of those ivories, play the undulating cloud of avians with all of the grace of their effortless flight; be ahead of the music. Mr. Li made those mood changes instantaneously, laughing, sneering, marching and threatening with Rachmaninoff, without skipping a beat.
La Valse (1919-1920) by Maurice Ravel (1975-1937) offered George Li the opportunity to match great, accurate velocity with artistic protection of the melody; he accepted the challenge and won. Sometimes, in the romping work, there seems to be more accompaniment than melody. The secret is in the practice room. The thousands of notes, flying around the room must be so well known by the hands, that the mind can concentrate on the melody, on the music. When asked, Mr. Li said that, during those moments, his mind is on the melody.
A word on an encore. The second encore was the Bizet/Horowitz Carmen Variations, another, even more ferocious foray into challenging the instrument to keep up with the performer. Once again, melody was king, and the flying notes were there.