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George Li, 17, thrills with piano mastery in free recital

George Li played piano on “From the Top” – a PBS program devoted to young, talented musicians – when he was 10 years old. He’s older now, and at age 17, Li has passed the era of child prodigy and moved on to the next step in the process of becoming a world-class pianist. At this point, he’s pretty darned close, and it’s a good bet that he’ll eventually get there.

His recital Sunday afternoon, courtesy of the Buffalo Chamber Music Society’s “Gift to the Community” series, was packed with people who were ready to hear a highly touted young pianist play an impressive program of pianistic war horses. For the most part, Li delivered what was hoped for, a recital filled with fireworks and, impressively, played from memory.

The first three pieces were standards of the solo piano repertoire, but hearing all of them performed in one fell swoop doesn’t happen very often. These are musical monsters, each frequently acting as the centerpiece around which a recital is built.

Right off the bat there were two piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven – No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (aka “Moonlight”) and No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 (aka “Waldstein”) – whose themes have ingratiated themselves into pop culture and memory.

Li’s take on “Moonlight” featured a deliberate approach to the famous opening adagio, which then morphed into the faster second movement, where a sense of play hung around the edges before closing in a dramatic speed-demon reading of the finale as volume outweighed nuance.

While that was an impressive-sounding way to open a concert, there were moments that seemed as if he were cruising on the audience’s familiarity with the piece.

Things improved with Li’s playing of “Waldstein.” Quick passage work at the beginning led to applause from the audience before he began the second movement adagio, a performance that felt more true to the moment than his playing of the adagio from the “Moonlight” did. Li then closed out the work with a swift and impressive rendition of the finale.

After the intermission, the final big showpiece of the afternoon – Frederick Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor – picked up where the first half ended. The playing was impressive in the sense that all the notes were hit, but it was the kind of technical display that will only improve as Li’s use of subtlety catches up with his speed and power.

His playing in the famously somber third movement “Marche funebre” was a hint of the good things to come; the tempo was stately and unrushed, allowing the emotion in the music to come front and center.

It got even better, as Li proved to be a strong advocate for Franz Liszt with a wonderful rendition of that composer’s “Consolation” No. 3 in D flat major and a vibrant take on one of Liszt’s opera paraphrases, a rearrangement of thematic material from Giuseppe Verde’s “Rigoletto.” The pianist’s playing in these two works was impressive enough to wish that he could have done an all-Liszt recital.

Still, when one considers that Li has had a stellar career up to now and that he has a bright future ahead of him, there should be little doubt that his name on a concert program will be an enticement for years to come.

Concert Review

George Li, piano

Part of the Buffalo Chamber Music Society’s Gift to the Community Series on Sunday afternoon in the Kleinhans Music Hall Mary Seaton Room, 3 Symphony Circle.