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Archive for the ‘Vladimir Horowitz’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: GEORGE LI-Tiny Desk Concert #782 (August 31, 2018).

Is it a showstopper if it is your first song of the Concert?  That’s the question I asked while I marveled at George Li playing every single note on the piano at the same time (it seemed) during the opening piece by Horowitz.  The show did not stop, and he played two more beautiful pieces.

George Li is a 23-year-old American pianist.  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.

That first piece was by Li’s idol Vladimir Horowitz: Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from Bizet’s Opera Carmen.  

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.

The camera zooms in on his hands and it’s still impossible to see what chords or notes he is playing.  But it is very impressive to see how high he lifts his hands between notes.  Wow, what a piece.

He then moves onto Liszt.  Liszt is also a composer who makes pianists tremble.  Although the first piece by Liszt is quiet and beautiful, the second one shows off more of Li’s amazing chops.

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….

Liszt: Consolation No. 3 is just lovely the way it floats and soars through the melody.  Although even a fairly “simple” opening does involve using his right hand to play the bass notes.  I love that his left hand is playing this soothing melody while his right hand is constantly seeking out new variations on that melody.

But that’s nothing compared to Liszt: La Campanella in which from the angle of the camera it’s impossible to see what his right hand is doing the way it moves so quickly.  He borrowed themes from the Caprices of Paganini, “they’re all extremely difficult, of course.”  La Campanella means the bells and you can hear the high notes that keep repeating.

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.”

He talks about the bells building and building, adding new notes and octaves over the course of the four minutes.  And you can hear those high notes (I imagine it sounds amazing on a grand piano).  And just as you get 12:38 he starts doing this trills up at the higher register of the piano.  He gets both hands involved and it’s nearly 30 seconds of massive finger workout.

It’s exhausting just watching him.

Li is no doubt used to playing grand pianos, and the blurb wonders…

when Li 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.

While I love seeing musicians shine while playing impossible pieces, technical virtuosity is nothing without feeling.  And Li’s music is full of feeling as well.

[READ: January 3, 2016] “A Gentleman’s Game”

I always think that I like Jonathan Lethem’s stories, but I’m not really sure that I do (I’ll have to read back and see what I thought of previous stories).  But he always writes about things that I don’t expect.

Like this story.  It is set in Singapore and is about an American who has settled there and becomes a very good backgammon player.

The exotic setting is enticing, I suppose, but the story is really about two men who knew each other who engage in a contest to see who can win.

Bruno grew up in Berkeley, CA.   But when he was old enough he left and has never been back to the States.  He has been in Singapore for a long time and he is shocked one day to see Keith Stolarsky, a former schoolmate, walking up to The Smoker’s Club, a typically underground and unknown-to-tourists-club. (more…)

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