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China's Prince of the Piano

PIANIST Li Yundi is packaged as the "Piano Prince," the elegant patrician and young romantic whose music is poetry. Wang Zhiyu reports.

For the extravaganza opening of its flagship store in Lujiazhui last month, Apple chose China's "Piano Prince" Li Yundi -- not his flamboyant and audacious rival Lang Lang -- to be the cultural headliner, performing two Chopin nocturnes.

The performance, as expected, was brilliant and afterward Apple asked 28-year-old Li to play something else, anything that could be recorded and later downloaded from iTunes. A simple request, it would seem for the youngest-ever winner of the Chopin International Competition in 2000, when he was just 18, and the youngest winner ever.

However, Li politely declined the digital request for spontaneity, saying he preferred a "slower, more primitive method" and cited his strict requirements for studio recording and his own professional team.

Fans might have been disappointed, but the incident on the evening of July 12 demonstrates Li's well-known perfectionism when it comes to performing and recording his poetic interpretations.

It also speaks volumes about the temperament of the reserved "romantic" star Li Yundi who is often compared with rock-star-like, super-showman Lang Lang -- chosen to perform at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in August 2008.

Both men are 28 years old.

Lang Lang, clearly the extrovert, is not only technically brilliant but also has a flare for pop and crossover, which for Li, marketed as the "young romantic," is a distraction from the classics.

"Classical-pop crossover and collaboration is fine. In fact, I once played a duet with Jay Chou and it was fun. But as far as I can see, I will focus on classical music in my future.

"Music is not canned food. You cannot mass produce art," Li told Shanghai Daily in an interview before his Apple show.

The widely reported and gossiped about rivalry between Li Yundi and Lang Lang sounds ridiculous -- after all, China should have room for two magnificent young classical music heroes at a time when classical music is gaining in popularity.

But "who's better" debates rage in the admittedly small, and sometimes quite nasty, classical music circles. Each is deified by his passionate fans, his rival scorned. Li is refined and poetic, the perfect embodiment of Chopin, Lang is outrageous and commercial (his face is everywhere, even on bank credit cards). And on it goes.

New York piano critic Harris Goldsmith has lauded Li's "patrician elegance" and "exquisite artistry from one of the greatest talents to surface in years, nay, decades."

Since Lang Lang's coup at the Olympics, Li has been less visible, but he is taking a higher profile and performing far more frequently these days for Chopin's bicentennial. He has performed 63 times so far this year, far more than his usual 30-40 performances a year.

His next performance will be a closed private event on September 26 at the Oriental Art Center.

In the interview, he discussed classical music in China, his hopes and values and, of course, Lang Lang (very briefly).

Asked how he compares with Lang Lang, Li said, simply, "We target different audiences ... I always compare myself with myself at my earlier levels, not with others, to see if I am making progress."

Concerning classical music in China, Li said audiences are making major progress in appreciating classical music; their concert manners have improved, they are quieter and more respectful and sometimes even dress formally.

Li, who seldom used to show up at commercial events, said brands like Apple can provide more exposure to classical music. In the last few years he has also appeared in some other advertisements for Asahi beer, Nike athletic products and Rolex watches.

He has been the subject of a documentary, "The Young Romantic," and he has been packaged for some albums as an androgynous demure pretty boy, dressed all in black, including a silk blouse with a plunging neckline and bare chest.

"I would like to spend most of my time on my music, practicing. At the same time I hope commercial events can help the arts in China, not just financially. If classical music celebrities show up more often, people will pay more attention."

At the age of 18, Li burst onto the international scene, winning the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2000, the first pianist, and first Chinese, to be awarded first-prize in 15 years (it's held every five years and in two previous contests no first prize was awarded).

After Li's victory, his first recording, an all-Chopin disc, was released in 2002. In 2003 he made his debut in Carnegie Hall to considerable acclaim. That year he released his second album, an all-Liszt CD, which The New York Times called Best CD of the Year.

There have been numerous awards, concerts, tours, master classes and 10 CDs to date.

EMI recently released Li's new album, the complete Chopin Nocturnes in order to commemorate the composer's 200th birthday.

Li was born in 1982 in Chongqing; his parents worked for the Sichuan Chongqing Steel and Iron Co.

When he was three, he was given an accordion as a birthday present and loved it. Four years later he switched to piano.

Age seven is considered quite late to begin serious music studies, but Li made his way to the top in 11 years.

"Of course there were obstacles. My hands were not big enough to reach an octave ... but I never considered quitting," he said. "I suffered a serious hand injury when I was 10.

"I was afraid I could never play again, but my parents and teachers gave me great support," he recalled. "I had the passion. I believed I could put piano into my life and my blood, so I hung on and later I recovered ... You can call it fate."

Li said he is indebted to his teachers, especially Dan Zhaoyi, who taught him for 10 years. Speaking of Dan, Li cites the traditional Chinese saying, "Even if he is my teacher for only one day, I should respect him as my father for the rest of my life." The two keep in close touch.

After the Chopin competition Li studied in Hanover, Germany, with Israeli pianist Arie Vardi.

Comparing Dan and Vardi, he said, "Arie has a unique way of teaching. Western teachers give students more independence and freedom to develop and interpret music. But Chinese teachers are like parents, they are also very concerned with your attitude toward life. I learned to be a good person from Dan."

He is Mr Chopin in China and his mission now is to record the complete works.

"Chopin is sensitive, artistic and a perfectionist. I also prefer his elegant style and I always set a high standard for myself," Li said. "But it is the patriotic feeling in his music that I can most relate to.

"Chopin loved his country (Poland) deeply and longed for it all his life. It's easy to feel the same when you are abroad."

Although he has been identified with Chopin, Li doesn't want to be labeled as a certain type of artist. He excels at Lizst and likes composers from other time periods, like Bach.

"It takes a long time for me to prepare emotionally before performing. When I'm playing, I need to pour my feelings into it and know that I'm giving my best performance. If I don't, even if the audience doesn't notice, I will always feel awful." Li, who is single, likes swimming, visiting art galleries and collecting wine.

(Yao Min-G and Nie Xin also contribute to the story)


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