Cooper Winner Li Returns for Triumphant Recital

Clara Shannon

Last Saturday night, an 18-year-old college first-year performed a solo concert as part of Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series. His age alone should indicate the virtuosic qualities of the concert, but when Harvard and New England Conservatory student and renowned concert pianist George Li took the stage, the mature, riveting performance that followed surpassed all expectations.

Li was last in Oberlin only four years ago, when he nabbed first place at that year’s Thomas and Evon Cooper International Piano Competition. Although only 14 at the time, Li was not only featured as a soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra — an achievement even professional musicians dream of — but also won prize money and a full four-year scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory, along with several concert opportunities in China. Since then, Li’s momentum has only increased. He has played with numerous renowned orchestras and given recitals around the globe, including playing for Barack Obama at the White House in June of 2011. In 2012, Li was selected to be one of the two recipients of the Gilmore Young Artist Award, of which he is the youngest honoree to date.

Considering his biography, it’s not surprising that Li chose a mature, technically challenging program for his recital at Finney Chapel. The night began with a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 and Sergei Rachmaninoff ’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 before ending with Maurice Ravel’s La valse. After multiple standing ovations, Li played two encores, Widmung by Robert Schumann, arranged by Franz Liszt and Vladimir Horowitz’s Carmen Variations from George Bizet’s opera.

If it was ever up for debate if a young pianist could deliver such a program, Li firmly resolved the matter. The Schoenberg was thoughtful and engaging. Although the complexity of the composition can make it difficult for audiences to understand, Li moved to the music, swaying and jumping, his evident engagement making the piece more accessible for the audience. Li was also unfazed by the loud noises of the radiator in Finney’s echoing hall, demonstrating unusual poise.

Beethoven’s complex Sonata No. 32, written at the end of the composer’s life, demands a level of emotional maturity from the performer, beyond the depth of many 18-year-old pianists. This made it a surprising choice for Li, but his performance was dark, passionate and deep. Li hovered over the keys and shifted with the music, making it clear that he was performing at the utmost level of concentration and emotional intensity.

After a brief intermission, Li continued with Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Since the concert’s first portion ended on such a dark note, Rachmaninoff ’s sparkly variations added a welcome uplifting touch to the night. Li executed the technically difficult runs and fast passages of the piece effortlessly. He ended with Ravel’s La valse — a performance beautiful beyond words. The sound of the piano rang through the hall, enchanting the audience. With passion and power, Li truly showcased the musical chops that brought the audience to their feet for a well-deserved standing ovation before the encore. It’s no question that the program was selected to be challenging, but Li dispatched it effortlessly, seeming alternately eerie, seductive, passionate and devilish as each song required.

After the recital, a reception was held at the basement of Finney Chapel for all those who attended to meet and congratulate the young virtuoso. Humble and happy, Li greeted his guests with kind words of thanks and relief, contrasting with his confident stage performance. Despite all his talent, Li is still a college first-year — leaving him many years to hone and display his impressive craft.