Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

Living up to China’s classical ideals

Posted by Kimberly on September 15, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
September 15, 2007, page 18 (995 words)

Pianist Yundi Li become the youngest pianist to win the International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition at the tender age of 18 and the only Chinese to have done so.
So impressive was his performance, that he was also given a Polonaise award by the Chopin Society at the competition, which, despite being held every five years, found the jury in the past two occasions declining to award the top prize.
Yet he recently announced he would never compete again, having only lived a quarter century thus far.
Asked why this was the case, he replied, “I think competition was a chance for me but with the music life it’s not only about competition it’s about how you prove yourself and develop your music. How you play and what you play.”
Born in Chongquing in central China, the young Yundi took up the accordion at the age of four, tutored by Tan Jian Min, after having become so fascinated by a man playing an accordion in a shopping mall that he refused to leave.
With little more than a year’s worth of practice, Lundi won the first prize at the Chongqing Children’s Accordion Competition.
By the age of seven, he had begun his piano lessons after gaining permission form his parents so that by the time he was twelve, his impressive performance during the selection process earned him a place at the top music school in Sichuan province.
It was a life that seemed destined for music and nothing else, yet Yundi seems unfazed by the suggestion that he’d missed out on life.
“Sometimes there are bad moments but I never wanted to give up [playing piano] because I always enjoy the piano and music is my dream. so I always want to share the piano and music with other people and that is always important to me,” he said.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t know the meaning of fun.
“I like to stay with music more but of course I like to spend time with my friends as I have so many friends around the world and we still keep in touch and we talk about everything, so it’s enjoyable,” he said.
Li’s family moved a year after his scholastic induction, to allow the young prodigy to continue his tutelage with the same teacher, who has decided to take up a post at the School of Arts in Shenzhen, in the south of China.
Despite the high cost of the school fees and Yundi’s mother giving up her employment to supervise her son’s career, there was no concern about affording the tuition with the numerous scholarships and awards he had already won by then.
Yundi went on to win the Stravinsky Competition in the United States at the age of thirteen, in 1995. But it didn’t stop there.
He also came first in the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition in the United States and claimed third prize in the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition in the Netherlands in 1999.
He was also a major winner in the Second China International Piano Competition in Beijing, also in 1999.
In Lundi’s opinion, classical music plays a big part in China.
“I think classical music right now is very big in China. And everybody is talking about China so this is a big challenge for all Chinese people,” he said
“Also classical music needs some time for people to understand. That’s why I present more music, more different repertoires, different composers for people so they can understand the music,’ he adds.
And the figures speak for themselves. Yundi’s debut disc sold more than 100,000 copies in Japan, Korea, and China, countries where he plays regularly.
Of course, classical music is acknowledged world-wide, something Yundi also have extensive experience in, through his various performances, beginning with his debut in the United States playing in 2003.
He played at Carnegie Hall as part of Steinway and Sons’ 150th Anniversary Gala.
Meanwhile, his own concerto debut in the US took place the following month, performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
Asked whether Chopin was indeed his favourite , he admitted to his fondness of the 19th century Polish composer but “also Brahms and Schuman are my favourites, also Tchaikovsky I enjoy very much,” he said, adding that “I will try and do some pieces for the future.”
His collaborations with the Macao Orchestra, whom he said “are fantastic,” have been numerous, including his latest last night at the Cultural Centre, for which he said, “I think we have a very good feeling.”
He performed several pieces including Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.
Moreover, Manuel de Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos Suite No. 2 and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” were also performed, conducted by the orchestra’s Music Director En Shao.
Nevertheless, the majority of his recordings have focussed on Chopin and Franz Liszt, a Hungarian pianist and composer of the Romantic period.
Currently attached to recording label Deutsche Grammophon, Yundi’s first recording for them was completely Chopin, released in early 2002.
He was given the honour of New York Times’ “Best CD of the Year” in 2003 for his second recording of Liszt.
Both recordings were described by The Boston Globe as “documenting an unusual combination of brains and brawn, poetic temperament and romantic fire.”
Asked whether he feel his style has particularly changed over time, Lundi disagrees, saying, “it’s not about change, it’s about development, especially in different technical ways. A difference in structure, more dynamic sounds that need fast fingers so that was a challenge for me.”
And those fast fingers have certainly taken a beating over the years, to the point where he can no longer close them. After eight hours a day of practice, practically every day, toiling must take it’s toll.
As Pat Benatar once sang, “love is a battlefield.”
With his passion for composers of the Romantic period, Yundi certainly has the scars to prove it.


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