Thursday 22 February 2018

The making of a genius, China-style

Passion, sacrifice and dedication. These have been the tenets of Yundi Li's life. Ciara Dwyer met the Chinese pianist in London who told her how he became a classical superstar

"In China, everybody works hard. It's in the DNA. If you're not working, you have nothing," says pianist Yundi Li. Photo: Wing Shya

'My parents' generation were only allowed to have one child," says Yundi Li, "so everybody was an only child."

The 33-year-old Chinese pianist utters this is in a very matter-of-fact fashion; such was his norm. From a Western perspective it's easy to forget these strictures, which began in 1979 and only ended last year. You wonder how much his being an only child played a part in him becoming the classical superstar he is today. His parents spotted that their son had a talent. And so, they did everything within their means - and way beyond them - to help him achieve his potential. All the while, they didn't want to put undue pressure on him. It was a tricky balancing act.

"My parents just wanted me to be happy," he says.

And it sounds like they still do. He tells me that they remind him not to tire himself out too much and to mind his health. He probably needs this advice more than ever now that he is on a Chopin world tour, which includes Germany, Russia and the US. He will play in the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on April 21.

"They are always behind me," he says.

Yundi, as he is now known, is a global phenomenon. His last Chinese tour of 35 cities sold out in 12 minutes. He has over 18 million followers on Weibo (China's equivalent of Twitter.) Such is his popularity that piano fever has swept China. Now there is an estimated 50 million young Chinese people learning the piano. (He and fellow Chinese pianist Lang Lang are credited for this surge.) In China, he did a TV ad for a car company with US pop star Taylor Swift. Out of the two, he is the better known there. It's all very razzmatazz and such a long way from his austere beginning.

He first came to the attention of the classical music world in 2000, when he won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland. At 18, he was the youngest winner and the first Chinese musician to win it. He was also awarded the Gold Medal there. For 15 years no competitor had been deemed worthy of that prize, until Yundi that is; he was different. This scraggy-haired, intense-looking young man whose performance dazzled the judges. His playing has been described as poetic. He is so immersed in the music that it looks like he is at one with the piano.

Winning in Warsaw was the beginning of his career. It has soared ever since.

This is a story of love, sacrifice and dedication. It's also about how the strict Chinese system of education produced a prodigy. The family lived in Chongqing, south west China. As a boy, Yundi started to play the accordion at the age of three.

"My teacher, Mrs Tan, emphasised sincerity and honesty and a feeling for the music. I think she is responsible for awakening this in me," he says.

After two years of lessons he had advanced so quickly that she advised his parents to switch to the piano.

"She thought that the piano had more future," he tells me. "I'm very appreciative of that because without her I would not be here today. Of course, the accordion is a wonderful instrument but not for a major career."

It all sounds so serious for one so young. But then he tells me that in hot weather, the accordion was uncomfortable. Physically, the piano felt easier and he preferred the sound of it. "It had much more colour," he says.

By the time he was seven, his talent was so evident that it was decided that Yundi's teacher would sell them a second-hand piano. Raising the money to buy it was an enormous struggle. Yundi tells me that they weren't poor but nor were they rich. His steelworker father took all his savings and borrowed from grandparents too. The piano cost 40 times his monthly salary.

When he was little, Yundi practised the piano for five hours a day. "I studied piano music because I wanted to," he tells me. "And then in my teens, I wanted to perform for people, to show them what I had learnt. Of course, being an only child I was given a lot of attention but if during that time I didn't want to play, they didn't force me.

"Studying the piano was about following my heart," he says. "I liked to practise and I didn't want to get up from the piano. It was my passion. The lessons with my teacher were exciting. I progressed very fast - triple the speed of the other students."

The Eastern methods of education were very different. He says that his mother was not one of those so-called tiger moms, referring to Amy Chua's theory that Chinese mothers tend to raise more successful children because of strict cultural tendencies. (The author preached the merits of hard work and of how teaching your children to focus can pay off.) Maybe it's from a Western perspective, but Yundi's musical upbringing sounds pretty full-on to me.

From the beginning, his mother nurtured her son's talent. She made little cardboard music notes and on the bus on the way to nursery, she would tap out their rhythm. She had already seen his hunger for music. As a one-year-old, he sat in front of a tape-recorder for two hours, listening to a popular song at the time. Two days later, he could sing it in full.

The documentary on his life, The Young Romantic - A Portrait of Yundi, is very revealing. It was made in 2008 as he was about to make his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and before his star ascended to the stratosphere. In it, he talks of his first piano teacher, Mr Wu, and laughs as he remembers his teaching style.

"In the West, the methods he used would have been considered illegal," he says. "He would yell at you. In class, he held a bamboo stick and if your fingers did not meet his demands, he would hit you. All of the students were afraid of him. I don't think he was a bad person, just very strict. It was a militant sort of training but I benefited from it a lot."

At home, his mother would supervise his piano practice.

"His teacher made very strict demands," she explained in the documentary.

"I used to sit beside Yundi with a large knitting needle. I would hold the needle and hit him with it. This would hurt him but it wouldn't harm his bones or tendons. Often I would pry open his fingers a bit. I never hit him hard and it was just a knitting needle. I only tried to scare him with it," she said.

By the time he was 11, it was decided that he would go to the music conservatory and then he won a scholarship. Along the way, the family even moved city so that he could further his studies.

After he won the Chopin Competition, he eased his way into the performing world. Rather wisely, he wanted to build up a slow and steady base. He moved to Germany to do more studies and performed occasionally.

"The simple thing was to focus," he said. "I concentrated on the music, with no other disturbances."

The documentary shows a young man hungry to learn from the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa. As they rehearse Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No 2 with the orchestra, a piece so difficult that it is rarely performed, he asked Ozawa if he could play it a bit faster.

"He wants to play it faster," the conductor tells the orchestra with a weary smile. "He's young."

He knows that Yundi has the impatience of youth but he can also see that this young man is fiercely talented and extremely driven. It is an interesting portrait of a pupil and a mentor. Ozawa knows that Yundi is on the cusp of greatness. He says that the young man has his own dream, his own fantasy of making music and it will be interesting to see how he grows up in the next decade.

Now, at 33, his life is very different. He performs a world tour almost every year. There are also lucrative endorsements. He lives alone in Beijing and it sounds like his schedule is hectic. When I ask him what he does for laughs, he tells me that he goes to the gym. This is not about creating muscle but simply to be healthy and strong for when he sits down at the piano.

"I want to keep fresh,"he tells me. "Playing the piano is hard work. If I get fat, I will be more exhausted and I won't be able to handle it. When you play you need to have energy. If I'm not healthy, I cannot make music. You need to work hard and concentrate in your profession. This is the world of progress. It's not like before."

In 2015, he was asked to be one of the judges on the Chopin Competition which he had once won. I wonder if he felt strange returning.

"I'm still the same person," he says. "More colourful I think, but I still have the same heart for Chopin."

He certainly doesn't look anything like the scraggy-haired young prize-winner in Poland.

On the day I meet him in London, he is immaculately groomed. Everything about him is lean - from his muscular fingers to his tight torso. He has beautiful luminous skin and I can't help noticing that he is wearing the thinnest layer of foundation which accentuates his glow. (He has missed a bit and I am tempted to reach over and blend it in but I restrain myself.) His dark eyes are framed with a thin line of eye-liner. He has a full day of interviews ahead of him, and so perhaps the make-up is for photos. When I ask him if he is wearing foundation, he says no, very abruptly, so we move on.

Instead, I ask him to describe his life now. He talks about the endless hours at the piano.

"There are so many repertoires that you need to study and you need to progress all the time," he says. "For example, you can spend two hours trying to find the right tempo or the right colour or the touch and the time passes so fast. You probably only work on two bars of music. I go into the practice room at 10 in the morning and when you get out it's completely dark. But I enjoy doing it and finding the right colour.

"Sometimes you fight with yourself because you're not in a good mood and you cannot make it. Then you feel sad. But after a nice sleep, the next day you think, I'm going to try again. You're always checking your progress. Sometimes I'm exhausted with all the travel but never with music. I'm always excited about that.

"Practice is like a meditation for me. You focus on one thing every day, so it's like the Buddha. Many times you sit there, just thinking. If you don't practise you can't be close to the music. And as we say, if you're not close to the music, then music will not be close to you."

I ask him to explain the theory that the Chinese want to be the best at everything.

"In China, there is a huge number of people and everybody works hard," he says.

"That's kind of the natural atmosphere and the DNA. Of course, every place has lazy people but they are the exception. In China, if you're not working, you have nothing. It's not that every Chinese person wants success but they want to work hard and to be valued in their life.

"In the past, in my father's generation, they couldn't do what they liked. But for my generation and young people now, it's very different. It's like a bomb and it's very fast. People can do what they like and they have a passion and a drive. Before people were restricted but now with this opening up and this freedom, everybody has a dream. It's like the Americans say - if you have a dream, just do it. You do have a chance, no matter if you succeed or not.

"I'm enjoying this moment in my life," he says. "I'm inspiring a new generation who are hungry to learn music. I think that's my responsibility and it's my dream."

So says the man who made his dream a reality, thanks to his dedication and his parents' devotion.

Yundi plays at the NCH on April 21;; Ph 01-417000; Tickets from €22.50

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