Like so many other kids, George Li began piano lessons at age 4. Though it soon was clear he had a special gift, for years, it was just a hobby.
One day at age 11, while performing Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, the Boston native had an epiphany.
“All of a sudden, in the middle of the performance I felt different,” he said in a 2018 interview with National Public Radio. “I was kind of transported in some other reality. And I felt all these emotions within the piece and within myself.”
That's when Li's light bulb switched on.
“After that moment I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” he said.
So far, the rest of his life has only been a dozen years, but they’ve been momentous.
Li, the Silver Medalist in the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, returns to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage for a concert titled Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich on Friday and Saturday, March 15-16 at 8 p.m. in DeVos Performance hall.
Li will be soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, one of the most popular works for piano and orchestra in the entire repertoire.
“I’ve never worked with him, but I’ve heard such incredible things about him,” Music Director Marcelo Lehninger said recently.
Lehninger also will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. The concerts open with Moxie, a short, satirical work by American composer Kristin Kuster.
Tickets in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series start at $18 adults, $5 students. Call (616) 454-9451 or go online to GRSymphony.org
Seven years ago, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants was named a Gilmore Young Artist of the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. Just 15 years old, the youngest-ever Gilmore Young Artist made his debut at age 16 with the Grand Rapids Symphony, performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A for the symphony’s Rising Stars Series.
Three years later, Li took the Silver Medal at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition. The following year, the pianist from Boston won an Avery Fisher Career Grant. In 2017, Warner Classics released his debut recording.
Two weeks ago, on Feb. 27, Li made a splash in Santa Barbara playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Russian National Orchestra on a U.S. tour. Two weeks from now, on March 27, he performs Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the London Philharmonic in the Royal Festival Hall under Vasily Petrenko.
Now 23 years old, Li just graduated from college – from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in music from New England Conservatory through a joint degree program.
Following a performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2017, the Sydney Morning Herald praised his “overarching musical concentration that engendered clarity of shape and melodic lines of expressively calibrated nuance. When required, his playing is brilliantly virtuosic but that alone does not create the absorbing listening he and the SSO under David Robertson created.”
Lehninger said he’s looking forward to having the rising star back in Grand Rapids to perform the well-known piece.
“Every pianist plays it,” Lehninger said. “So I’m looking forward to seeing what he’ll do with it.”