Three days after his graduation from Harvard University, 22-year-old pianist Andrew Li was all smiles. Behind his shy demeanor was a quiet excitement, an eagerness to move on to his next big challenge: the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Li was one of 18 pianists who advanced from the preliminary round to the quarterfinals, but was eliminated before the semifinals.
He is no stranger to the pressures of piano competitions, having won the Boston Symphony Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition in 2016. As a result, Li performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra the following year at the BSO’s family concert. He described that concert as awe-inspiring and fun.
“They were probably sight-reading the music, and it still sounded like one of the most wonderful things I’d ever heard in person,” he recalled.
Later, he placed fifth in the Cooper International Piano Competition and won first at the Harvard Music Association Achievement Awards.
He decided to take on the Cliburn. As a child, Li remembered watching a documentary about the 2001 Cliburn competition and feeling exhilarated watching the competitors prepare. Just getting to the Cliburn is a significant accomplishment, and Li said he considers himself lucky to have come this far in his training.
“It became a bit of a dream for me to compete at the Cliburn and, I guess, witness that for myself,” he said.
Li began playing piano when he was 6 years old, following in the footsteps of his brother George, who also is a concert pianist. Li said his childhood interest in piano was part admiration and part sibling rivalry.
“I think I saw that, and part of me was probably a little jealous and it fueled the competitive streak in me. I guess I wanted to start not for personal fulfillment at that time, but just to compete with him,” Li said.
But over time, Li said, he developed a love for the artistry and complexity of classical piano. He describes each new piece almost like a new language for him to translate. Not only must he be technically correct, he also must capture the spirit of the piece and make it accessible to his audience.
Among his preferred composers are Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler, who Li said crafted works that were intellectually demanding yet captured a multitude of emotions. One example he gave was Beethoven’s “Variations.”
“It’s just covered in different (musical) slurs and dynamic markings, expressive markings. … It really goes to show the challenge of not only bringing out the markings of the page but making it understandable to the listener,” he said.
Rose McLachlan attended Li’s preliminary recital and said his performance was impressive and lively. McLachlan, also a pianist, said she particularly enjoyed his third piece, Stravinsky’s “Three Movements from Petrushka.”
“It was just so exciting and just exhilarating to watch,” she said.
Li was both excited and nervous to see how he fared in the competition, but that his focus wasn’t on the competition – just his music.
“For me it’s like the musical equivalent of climbing Mount Everest,” he said. “It’s a huge feat just to be able to be here at this competition, and I definitely consider myself very lucky to have made it this far.”
Erin Ratigan is a freelance journalist and writer specializing in narrative news features. She has contributed to KERA News, Fort Worth Weekly and The Metro Report, and has received multiple regional and state-level journalism awards. You can find her on Twitter: @erinratigan.