When George Li, the 23-year-old American pianist, revealed his Tiny Desk setlist, one thought came to mind: How will these powerhouse showstoppers sound on an upright piano? The music he intended to play, by Franz Liszt and Vladimir Horowitz, was designed for a real, 7-foot concert grand piano – the kind they used to call "a symphony orchestra in a box."
Turns out, there was nothing to worry about. Li's technique is so comprehensive, so agile, so solid, that instead of making our trusty Yamaha U1 quake in fear, he made the instrument sound several sizes larger, producing glorious, full-bodied colors and textures.
Li comes by his achievements honestly. He began lessons at age 4, and at 10 gave his first public concert. Five years later, he snagged the silver medal at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Last fall, he released his debut album on a major label and these days he's playing with many of the world's major orchestras while touring the globe. He just graduated from Harvard where he studied English literature and piano, in a hybrid program with the New England Conservatory.
Li is still young, but in some ways he's an old soul. Forget streaming services; he still listens to CDs. And his "idol" is the old-school, swashbuckling virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, a pianist who died nearly 30 years ago.
To honor Horowitz, Li begins his Tiny Desk recital with the master pianist's electrifying reboot of a theme from Bizet's opera Carmen. Li describes it as an "insane knuckle-buster." Just watch his hands blur during the fiendish interlocking octaves at the explosive climax. Then it's two pieces by the ultimate monster pianist, Franz Liszt. The Consolation No. 3, with its gently flowing, long-lined melody and diaphanous ornaments, reveals the poetic side of the composer, while the rip-roaring La campanella begins with a single tinkling bell that multiplies into a wild cacophony of trills and scales, ending in what Li calls "a big bang."
George Li is a pianist whose star is very busy rising. And judging from the panache and precision in which he dispatched this extremely difficult music, he's an artist worth keeping an ear on for a good long time.
Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from Bizet's Opera Carmen
Liszt: Consolation No. 3
Liszt: La Campanella
Producers: Tom Huizenga, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Khun Minn Ohn; Production Assistants: Catherine Zhang, Téa Mottolese; Photo: Eric Lee/NPR.