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Young Pianist Hits Right Note

Li Yundi, a 18-year-old pianist rose to world fame after he won first prize at the 14th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw last month.

The contest, the most prestigious piano contest in the world which has been held every five years since 1927, has decided the fate of many piano masters.

Among former first prize winners, Maurizio Pollini is now enjoying world respect and Krystian Zimerman has become the embodiment of Chopin in the 20th century.

"Pollini won the contest at 18 - I would like to be another Maurizio Pollini," Li Yundi said.

Li won the competition by showing off his all-round mature playing technique and in-depth understanding of Chopin.

"His intense emotions lend a poetic and improvising quality to his interpretations of Chopin," said Dan Zhaoyi, his teacher.

Li chose to play Chopin's sonatas in the critical third round because he is good at expressing the light-hearted and bright tone.

"The Chinese boy impressed the jury with his gorgeous style and poetic air," wrote Jan Popis, a renowned critic.

The jury unanimously named him the first prize winner. Audiences on the spot applauded and cheered the long-haired young Chinese at the announcement.

Yet facing Li Yundi, one can hardly believe so much passion is hidden in this tall, thin boy who is sometimes clumsy in expressing himself.

"I am very young and I know I still have to work a lot to be a great pianist," he said.

"There are many young talented pianists who have won competitions and then disappeared. I have to be very careful to prevent it happening to me."

The event was not Li's first trip to Europe. He played while travelling with the Shenzhen Orchestra to Berlin and Prague in 1998.

It is also not the first competition he has won. Last year he took first prize at the Gina Bachauer Competition in Salt Lake City, in the United States.

He was also the laureate of the Franz Liszt Competition in Utrecht, Belgium, where he was awarded the Audience Prize and third prize overall.

Born in Chongqing in October 1982, the talented pianist started his musical journey at the age of four.

He told his mother, Zhang Xiaolu, that he wished to play the piano. She agreed.

"I hoped he could realize my childhood musical dream some day," Zhang said.

When Li was seven, his parents spent all their savings buying him a piano, a luxury in China is the 1980s.

Soon the boy began to show his talent. His startling progress almost annoyed his parents since they found it hard to find a good teacher.

Fortunately in 1991, Li became a student of Dan Zhaoyi, a famous professor at the Affiliated High School of the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, whose knowledge and love inspired Li.

When Professor Dan left for South China's Shenzhen Art School, Li's whole family moved too for the sake of the young-ster's piano career.

Five years in Shenzhen lay a solid foundation for future success. The young man made impressive strides in his musical performances.

"Li's success is a result of his studious practice as well as his talent," said Xiao Mei, a teacher at the Shenzhen Art School.

Li has extraordinary will power which can endure a heavy work load. He usually plays the piano for five to six hours every day and 10 hours a day before a competition.

As a teenager, Li likes playing table tennis, which he is good at, but the piano is almost the whole of his life.

Li thanks his school, professor Dan and his family for their support and help. "My appreciation for them is beyond words," he said. "I have to pay them back with life-long endeavour."

His mother quit her job in 1994 to take care of Li's daily life and to supervise his rehearsals.

His tutor, Professor Dan, listens to a dozen different versions of a musical score and absorbs their essence before he teaches Li.

"Thorough understanding of the music is only achieved through mastery of all relevant schools," said the 51-year-old professor.

Shenzhen Art School has also played a major part in Li's success.

Thanks to the school's sponsorship, he was able to participate in three international competitions last year, winning three prizes.

Li was also sent for training to the USA and Germany in preparation for the Chopin competition for about two months prior to the event.

In the past five years, the school has offered Li a scholarship so that he only has to pay 100 yuan (US$12) for tuition fees and expenses every year instead of the regular 5,000 yuan (US$600).

But the pianist paid that back by becoming the first Chinese gold prize winner at the Chopin competition in its 73-year history.

Before him, Fu Cong won third prize in 1955 and Li Mingqiang came fourth in 1960.

On November 25 in Beijing, Li will hold a Chopin concert with the China National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Tang Muhai.

All of China is waiting for a performance from this young master.

(China Daily 11/16/2000)

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