Virtuoso variations: Two huge, distinct talents

Outgoing, expressive Lang Lang and shy, humble Yundi Li stir new interest in piano, pianists

Classical Music

April 03, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The last time two pianists sparked widespread acclaim, generated reams of publicity and divided their admirers into opposing camps was at least half a century ago, back in the heyday of Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein.

Today, a pair of richly gifted, 22-year-old Chinese keyboard artists are doing the same.

By a happy coincidence of scheduling, Lang Lang and Yundi Li will both give recitals in Baltimore within the span of a month. The former appears today at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with a program of Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Li will play works by Mozart, Chopin and Liszt May 1 at Shriver Hall.

The two pianists have much in common beyond their birth year and birthplace - enviable technical brilliance, the ability to produce a wealth of tone coloring, a gift for communicating deeply with an audience. They cover some of the same musical terrain, and record for the same prestigious label, Deutsche Grammophon, which promotes both with the kind of flair commonly applied to teen heartthrobs.

On his debut, all-Chopin recording, Li sports cool designer wear, including a couple of sleeveless shirts, and an assortment of come-hither looks. On the cover of his recent all-Rachmaninoff release, an eyes-closed Lang Lang exudes intense mental concentration; an inside shot captures him in a much more suggestive moment.

Whatever similarities might be found between them, the two pianists are in many ways polar opposites. It's awfully tempting to view them as a musical manifestation of yin and yang.

Lang Lang is the extrovert, with a crowd-embracing, sometimes cocky personality onstage and off, and wildly emotive face and body language when he plays. His music-making can be strikingly individualistic. He has turned up on late-night TV chat shows, as well as Sesame Street and 60 Minutes. In his spare time, he's a cultural ambassador for UNICEF.

Li is the introvert, proper and restrained in concert comportment, soft-spoken and humble in interviews. He brings patrician tastes to music and mostly avoids unusual interpretive tweaking. He has been profiled on NPR, but is unlikely to be seen on Jay Leno's couch.

"Even though we come from the same country, we play differently," Li says from Los Angeles, the starting point for his current U.S. tour. "We have different personalities."

Some may expect to see - or even secretly root for - a rivalry between the two. There are no signs of that.

"A lot of people ask me about Lang Lang," Li says. "We met each other, I think in Beijing, and we were very friendly. There is enough space for both of us."

Lang Lang, reached in Berlin between rehearsals with the Chicago Symphony, agrees. "I don't see the competition between us," he says.

Inspired by a cartoon

The two pianists were born at the right time in China. "The Cultural Revolution ended 30 years ago," says Li, who began studying piano at age 7, "so it was very safe for our generation to study Western music."

The country's new openness played into Lang Lang's hands when, as a youth in Shenyang in northeast China, he encountered an American product.

"The first piece of classical music I ever heard was in a Tom and Jerry cartoon," he says. "It was Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, the piece that inspired me to become a pianist." Today, he owns a DVD of the cartoon.

At age 3, he was studying piano; at 8, he won a local competition and gave his first public recital. There were further studies at the Central Music Conservatory in Beijing and then the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (he still calls Philadelphia home, but spends little time there).

After subbing for Andre Watts at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago in 1999, his career was solidly launched. A Carnegie Hall debut (with Yuri Temirkanov and the Baltimore Symphony) was one of many milestones reached since.

For Li, raised in the southwest Chinese city of Chongqing, the piano was a second choice of instrument. The first was the accordion. At 5, he won an accordion competition, but two years later switched to piano.

He entered the Sichuan Music Academy at 12 and soon won competitions in China and the United States. In 2000, at 18, he became the youngest and the first Chinese winner of the important Chopin Competition in Warsaw, which hadn't found a worthy gold medalist in 15 years.

"My teacher thought I should just try it, look around and see what it's like," Li says.

The victory assured the teenager global attention. And with each concert, including a 2003 Carnegie Hall gig, he expanded his fan base. Appearing in a Nike commercial aired during the 2004 Olympics didn't hurt.

These days he makes his home in Hannover, Germany, but visits his family in China often.

Critics speak out

Critical opinions about Li's playing, never precious in its lyrical nuances or ostentatious in its virtuosity, are consistently positive.

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