Like so many young classical musicians these days, Yundi Li doesn't look much like a classical musician. Sitting in a hotel lobby in jeans and a baseball cap, he could be any young man visiting Toronto for business or pleasure.
But he's not just any young man - this Chinese pianist is one of the fastest-rising classical musicians in the world. Currently in the midst of a North American tour, he's in town to play Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. "I like travelling," he says casually, in his Sichuan-inflected English. "I'm playing over 100 concerts this year. I'll play 20 concerts in China, 30 in Japan, 30 in North America and the rest in Europe. It's a lot, but it's okay - because I decide which cities I'm going to and what my repertoire will be."
Now 25 years old, he is comfortable and confident with his stature. He's recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic and London's Philharmonia Orchestra, for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. He's been praised by The New York Times for his "very real musicality," and American Record Guide declared that "he belongs with the new pianistic superstars."
Interest in him is also fuelled by the widespread notion that he's locked in an intense rivalry with another Chinese pia-nist, Lang Lang. In the West, Lang - who's the same age as Li - is probably the more famous of the two: The flashy and well coiffed pianist recently performed on the Grammy Awards (Lang will play with the TSO on March 1). Yet if that makes Li the Other Guy, he seems to take it in stride and he dismisses talk of rivalry. "I know Lang, and I think he's a great pianist. I'm happy China has so many different and exciting pianists on the international stage. I don't compare myself with any other pianist - I only compare myself with myself. That's my philosophy."
In China, Li enjoys the celebrity of a pop star - an image that he proudly cultivates. "I've done a lot of concerts on TV, and commercials for Mercedes-Benz and other companies. On the one side I am a pianist, on the other side is my star career. I think it's the new way. Why can't classical musicians be on television, or play in different kinds of concerts? That will bring a bigger audience to the music."
Indeed, in Asia Li has tapped into a vein of mass interest in classical music that doesn't really exist in the West. In December, he made a guest appearance at pop concert in the Hong Kong Coliseum, on a rising stage, surrounded by fog machines and elaborate lighting effects. He played Liszt's arrangement of Schumann's song Widmung - and the crowd of 12,000 went wild. (The scene will appear in a soon-to-be released documentary film on Li, The Young Romantic, by Rhombus Media.) "Maybe some day I'll be in a Hollywood movie!" he says with a smile that suggests he isn't entirely joking.
If Li embraces his star-status, it may be because his rise to stardom was so unlikely. Born in Chongqing, in central China, into a family of non-musicians, he first displayed prodigious talent on the accordion. It was not until he was 7 that he began piano lessons (rather late for a concert pianist). He didn't hear a live orchestra until he was 10, or recordings of Western pianists until he was 12. Just six years later, he won one of the highest awards in the piano world: the gold medal in Warsaw's Chopin Piano Competition. If ever there was a defining moment in an artist's life, this was it.
He attributes his success to an exceptional teacher, Zhao Yi Dan, with whom he studied for nine years. "Chinese teachers are like a member of the family," he explains. "We were very close. We worked together a lot, almost five hours a day, every day. In North America teaching is very businesslike: You do your job for an hour." Dan's devotion to his student was so strong that he travelled with Li to the Chopin competition, and even cooked Chinese food for him while he was in Warsaw.
Following his Warsaw victory Li stated that he would enter no more competitions. In part, because he simply didn't have to bother with them any more. But his decision also speaks of an ambivalence toward such events. "I don't think competition is always healthy and good - but it can start a career," he says. "Competitions offer the opportunity to meet people who should know you: managers and people from recording companies. Also, competitions give you a chance to play on stage, before an audience. But they aren't the only way to have a career."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Li performs tonight, tomorrow and Saturday with the TSO at Roy Thomson Hall, and has a solo piano recital at Roy Thomson Hall on March 18.