Concert Review: Pianist George Li and Conductor Ben Zander Make Magic

Where does such musical maturity and—let’s face it—genius come from? Pianist George Li’s phrasing, the beauty of his sound, his perfect pedaling and expressive rhythm—all were in play.

By Susan Miron

At the age of 17, George Li already has a resumé any musician would envy.

One of the things I like most about conductor Benjamin Zander is his use, again and again, of the same hugely gifted young artists. At Sunday’s concert at Cambridge’s Sanders Theatre (the third performance of this Boston Philharmonic Orchestra program), pianist George Li was a great example of a musician who has benefited from a longtime collaboration with Mr. Zander. For those who have yet to hear him (do try!), pianist George Li is—at 17—no longer a child prodigy, although he looks far younger than his years. George Li already has a resumé any musician would envy.

A Young Concert Artists Winner, Li has appeared as soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra after winning first prize at the Cooper Competition at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and has played with a host of other prestigious orchestras and at many concert venues. Young Concert Artists (YCA) has presented him in NYC’s Merkin hall, Washington DC’s Kennedy Center, and the Gardner Museum. He’s an artist worth watching—and hearing.

The Boston Philharmonic is a group I somehow missed hearing in my first three decades in Boston, but I caught their last wonderful concert with violinist Stephan Jaciw (who has also enjoyed a long relationship with Mr. Zander), and I have become a fan. There were several astonishing aspects of this recent concert, one of which was (during a time when many Boston Symphony Orchestra seats go empty week after week) the performance was completely sold-out, as was their concert on Saturday night at Jordan Hall.*

I first heard George Li in a solo recital at Gardner Museum this January and was astonished by the mastery and beauty of his playing. Generally, I am not fond of the idea of child prodigies, so I reluctantly went to hear him. I ended up falling under the spell of his playing like a young girl in love. At Walnut Hill School, where Li is a senior, he gave another spectacular recital, so by this concert, in which he played Rachmaninov’s extremely popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, I expected to be very impressed. And I was, but I was also deeply moved and amazed. Where does such musical maturity and—let’s face it—genius come from? Li’s phrasing, the beauty of his sound, his perfect pedaling and expressive rhythm, a kind of sensitivity to the orchestral players that usually comes from years of playing chamber music—all were in play. Zander conducted masterfully throughout the afternoon so that the two musical warhorses revealed fresh and compelling insights.

By now George Li knows that everyone wants him to play more, so he always rushes back, sits down, and amazes some more. No playing coy with him! His encores were well-known pieces: a B minor nocturne by Chopin and a Rachmaninov Prelude. The entire audience was up on its feet cheering madly after the concerto and each encore.

Conductor Benjamin Zander — he gave a most interesting pre-concert lecture, assisted in his many illustrations by a portable keyboard.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 is by far his most popular, and Zander’s winds and brass (of whom he is extremely proud) had numerous chances to strut their stuff. Famed oboist Peggy Pearson, flutist Katleen Boyd, clarinetist Thomas Hill, and the whole brass section (wonderful horns!) were outstanding (at both concerts I heard). The strings were very good, and concertmistress Joanna Kurkowicz (whom I have admired in the Chameleon Arts Ensemble) was superb. Still, at both concerts I attended, the harp (two harps in the Shostakovich) were barely audible. Perhaps they might be encouraged to play louder or sit closer to the front, although I was in the fifth row. Their part in the Shostakovich is crucial, and I missed the frisson I usually get when I hear them in this brilliantly orchestrated work.

Mr. Zander gave a most interesting pre-concert lecture, assisted in his many illustrations by a portable keyboard. This is clearly a work he loves, yet one he also feels serves ups a “shaking and shocking experience.” He finds the first movement “shattering in its intensity,” which his orchestra illustrated dramatically. The second movement, he mused, is full of grotesque humor and sarcasm whose theme comes from a popular song. He sees much of it as “a cry of pain from behind an impenetrable wall.” The late Michael Steinberg, who wrote program notes for the BSO and San Francisco Symphony, points out that both Arnold Schoenberg and Shostakovich saw themselves as Gustav Mahler’s “son.”

The third movement, the beautifully expressive Largo, is the intellectual and emotional heart of the symphony and is scored just for strings. (Serge Koussevitsky considered this slow movement the best since Beethoven’s Ninth). Written in a mere three days, it is full of artistic subtleties as well as hidden political and psychological allusions. The controversial fourth movement, to my ears, portends disaster, but it was intended to drum up (false) cheer.The BPO played it for all its scariness; the brass were simply fabulous. Premiered in November 1937, the composition stunned the Moscow audience, causing many to weep. A half hour standing ovation followed. Presented in Cambridge 75 years later, the symphony evoked the same response. Kudos to Mr. Zander and his orchestra for delivering a first-class performance.

* One matter that Sanders Theatre must address is the problem created by late-comers. The concert began some 15 minutes late, and then there was another 10-minute pause while more latecomers shuffled in. Mr. Zander, correctly but surprisingly, refused each time to play until the last person was seated and the last usher was at her post. He simply stood and watched the proceedings. Perhaps the latecomers should wait until the whole first piece is over. Such long hiatuses between movements are negatively mood-altering for both the musicians and audience.

Catch George Li at one of the following dates!

Sunday, January 27: Recital, The Center for the Arts (TCAN) Natick, MA
Sunday, March 9: Recital, Music from the Library, Concord, MA
Saturday, March 10: Schumann Piano Concerto with Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Boston, MA
Saturday, May 11, Mendelssohn Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Longwood Symphony Orchestra, Boston, MA

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