Practice makes perfect

It's an old, old joke-but it's also a good setup, so let's tell it one more time.

Some tourists, in Manhattan for the weekend, are running late for their big cultural event: a recital at the Big Apple's most prestigious concert venue. It's already after dark, and every gaggle of teenagers is a marauding gang, every shabby city dweller a potential mugger. At last, in fear and frustration, they stop a passing stranger carrying an instrument case.

"Excuse me," says the most forward of the visitors. "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

The musician stops, thinks for a minute, then makes her pronouncement. "Practise, practise, practise," she says, then hastens into the night.

A little luck helps, too.

Left to his own devices, there was no doubt that Yundi Li would someday earn a Carnegie Hall recital all on his own. The 23-year-old pianist is already being hailed as the rising master of the romantic piano repertoire; since winning Warsaw's prestigious Frédéric Chopin International Piano Competition in 2000, his reputation has soared. But last week, fate stepped in and fast-tracked Li's Carnegie debut.

Murray Perahia was scheduled to play the hall on April 3, but he must have been taking the need to practise, practise, practise a little too literally. In any event, the veteran pianist aggravated an old finger injury badly enough that he had to postpone his Carnegie show, and so it is that when the Georgia Straight reaches Li on the phone, he's in a New York City hotel, getting ready to fill in for the older musician.

"It's very exciting, and of course I'm very happy," he says, sounding not the least bit flustered. And Vancouver audiences should be happy as well. Two of the pieces he'll perform in New York-Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 330, and Robert Schumann's Carnaval, Op. 9-will be repeated when he plays the Orpheum on Friday (April 7). They also appear on Li's most recent CD, Vienna Recital, along with Franz Liszt's Rhapsodie Espagnole, which we will hear but the New York audience won't. Manhattanites will be presented with Liszt's Sonata in B Minor instead, but as a bonus we'll also be treated to Chopin's Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brilliante.

Arguably, we're getting the better bargain. What's not debatable is that both audiences will be presented with a full program of technically impeccable pianism.

Of course, that's a given. But on Vienna Recital, Li distinguishes himself by reaching deep into the written music to deliver emotionally vibrant renditions of these 200-year-old classics. That's especially noticeable on the Mozart piece, a concert-music staple that is, perhaps, just a little bit too frequently performed. Li, however, dives so deeply into its roots in dance music that I have to ask if he takes a personal interest in the terpsichorean arts.

He does, it seems, and has since birth.

"I love a lot of different things," he says. "I watch a lot of opera, and singers, and also my mother is a ballet dancer. But I cannot dance."

That's not how it sounds when he plays. Nonetheless, Li says that his interpretations owe as much to hard work as they do to spur-of-the-moment inspiration-with the possible exception of his pirouettes on that aforementioned Mozart sonata.

"I love Mozart," he enthuses. "Mozart's music helps me to grow my natural music feeling, because his music is very natural and naive and makes people very relaxed and happy.

"This piece, this sonata, has been played by many, many artists, and each artist plays it in a different style," he adds. "This piece is free for any style, because this piece is such a wonderful piece. A great piece can be played in each performer's own style; it's not limited to only one feeling. Particularly this sonata, I feel. I even play it in a different way at each concert. It all depends on the feeling that I have at that moment."

Granted, Li has been playing Mozart since he was a 10-year-old prodigy back in Chongqing, China. Adding new pieces to his repertoire demands a more scholarly approach. "I usually check with at least seven different editions, because I want to make sure my edition is correct," he explains. "The tempo, the order…a lot of the information, you can find in the score. And, secondly, I will also try to hear a lot of different performances, to see what other artists do. I especially love to hear a lot of the performers from the last century, even 19th-century performers-the old pianists, like [Sergei] Rachmaninoff. And, also, I speak with many musicians. Of course, I need to perform a piece on-stage to find out what is the best way I can do it."

At the moment, Li is working on some of Johann Sebastian Bach's music, although he doesn't specify which of the master's compositions have excited his attention. Given that he clearly enjoys a challenge, it's not impossible that he'll eventually record the Goldberg Variations. But his next CD, he says, will be with an orchestra, performing Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1.

"I think this is the right time to record it," he says. "I just had a performance with [conductor] Myung-Whun Chung and the London Symphony, and we were very happy with it."

The word happy comes up a lot in Li's conversation, and the amiable pianist certainly knows just how lucky he is that he's been allowed to pursue an artistic career.

"China has grown up very quick in the last 10 years," he observes. "The last generation-people my father's age, or my teacher's-they didn't have the chance to study. At the moment, though, everybody's free to study anything. There's a lot of freedom, and people can spend their talent on what they want."

Liberally blessed with talent, Li is spending it freely but wisely, and listeners the world over are reaping the dividends. Looks like we're lucky too.