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MUSIC REVIEW

An L.A. debut that's not as billed

Yundi Li's unannounced program change and his lack of range and sense of poetry mar his first recital in L.A.

April 15, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Yundi Li, the 23-year-old Chinese sensation who won the 2000 Chopin International Piano Competition, arrived at his Los Angeles recital debut Thursday at Royce Hall to great expectations.

Just about everyone in the piano world knows he's been positioned fairly or not as the rival to his 23-year-old compatriot, Lang Lang, although both share the same prestigious record label, Deutsche Grammophon. Li is supposed to represent quiet thoughtfulness, as opposed to Lang's barn-burning flash and mannerisms.

Would that things were that simple.

Certainly Li is a virtuoso. His technique includes octaves at breakneck speed, thundering power, knuckle-busting dexterity of the first rank. He brought youthful exuberance and commitment to his playing, even if he didn't dramatize it as Lang does by flailing about at the keyboard.

But what was lacking was a significant range of color and nuance, a sense of poetry and a persuasive connection to the deeper impulses that generate the music in the first place. Perhaps this will come as he matures.

Li played three works: Mozart's Sonata No. 10 in C, K. 330; Schumann's "Carnaval"; and Liszt's Sonata in B minor, a change from the printed program, which the sponsor, UCLA Live, failed to announce. More on that later.

Li made the Mozart a pretty trifle, finding in it little characterization, drama, light, shade or charm and apparently deciding there was no need to bother taking the sectional repeats in the outer movements. It was basically just a warmup for the big romantic pieces ahead.

"Carnaval" is made up of about 20 sections -- portraits of Schumann's friends and lovers and expressions of the composer's bipolar personality as well as an aesthetic manifesto hurled into the faces of his critics.

Li reveled in making it big, loud and hard-edged, but he hardly plumbed its psychological and stylistic contrasts and depths. The portraits were monochromatic and too similar.

Liszt's great one-movement sonata, too, fared best in the loud, fast and brilliant sections but wandered aimlessly in the introspective passages and failed to lift off in the inspirational ones. Li made it a technical showpiece when it can -- and should -- be more than that.

UCLA Live did Li no favors by failing to announce his change of program, his replacing Liszt's "Rhapsodie Espagnole" and Chopin's "Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise" with the Liszt sonata. When he finished the work and walked offstage, people applauded, but not with the exuberance they had shown earlier. They expected him to return to perform Chopin. Only when the house lights were turned up did they realize the recital was over.

Li did come back, but just to announce and play a fluffy encore, a Chinese traditional piece called "Sunflowers." People were confused and afterward didn't know whether to stay or leave. Some began to walk up the aisles, and others followed, asking one another what actually had been played. It was an embarrassing ending to Li's first L.A. recital.

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