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Chinese Pianist Beat Long Odds

December 20, 2000

SHENZHEN, China (AP) _ It is perhaps against all odds that Li Yundi has become such a promising young pianist.

The 18-year-old student, who recently won a gold medal in Warsaw at the International Frederic Chopin Competition, came from humble beginnings.

Born in the remote southwestern province of Sichuan to nonmusical parents, Li was 4 when he saw an accordion in a shop window in his hometown of Chongqing and begged his mother to buy it.

His prized instrument in hand, Li started lessons at the Sichuan Children’s Palace, a center for children’s cultural activities. He switched to piano at 7.

At the center, Li met his teacher and mentor, professor Dan Zhaoyi, who had to teach himself Western music after having no chance during China’s cultural revolution.

The authorities locked up pianos, smashed other Western instruments and burned sheet music to prevent any practice of what was regarded as a pointless bourgeois pursuit. Musicians were forced into humiliating menial jobs in an attempt by the state to ``re-educate″ them.

Dan persevered and found his career as a music teacher _ becoming for Li the ``greatest influence in my life.″

Five years into Li’s piano training, Dan was transferred to the Shenzhen Arts School in this border city next to Hong Kong. Li and his family followed.

The devotion paid off in October, when Li won the Chopin competition by playing the 19th-century Polish composer’s E minor piano concerto.

The gold medal is so rare, it hasn’t been awarded since 1985. The contest takes place only twice a decade, and judges deemed none of the pianists worthy of the award in 1990 or 1995.

Established in 1927, the contest sets the world standard for interpreting the composer’s music, known for its emotional intricacies and technical challenges.

For years, a prize from the Chopin competition has been a ticket to fame for budding pianists. Past winners have included Maurizio Pollini of Italy and Martha Argerich of Argentina.

But Li said it’s far too early to claim success.

``The prize will open doors, but I’m not ready for a performing career right now,″ the soft-spoken teen-ager said in an interview.

If such an accomplishment seems unlikely for someone from a Chinese industrial city where any hints of Western culture are scarce, consider Li’s present situation in Shenzhen, best known for its freewheeling commercial activities and sleazy night life. Many Hong Kong men keep second wives in Shenzhen, where prostitution is a major industry.

Li studies in a small, nondescript two-story building, covered by a film of dust from a construction site next door. It looks like any other secondary high school in mainland China, until you get close enough to see the small bulletin board covered with newspaper articles about Li’s triumph in Warsaw.

Turning his thoughts to the piano, Li said he needs to broaden his scope beyond his present strength in 19th-century romanticism. He wants to continue his education abroad, but he hasn’t decided where.

``I’d like to have a balanced development. I’d like to develop the classical and 20th-century repertoire _ like Prokofiev and Ravel,″ he said. ``Chopin is only a small part of my study, after all.″

Li finds himself following Fou Ts’ong, the first Chinese pianist to win an award at the Chopin competition; third place in 1955. Fou now is regarded as one of the world’s most acclaimed interpreters of Chopin, but his career has come at a huge personal cost.

He defected to the West in 1957 and his parents, both intellectuals, were so hounded by Chinese authorities during the cultural revolution that they killed themselves in 1966.

``I have never heard him play,″ Li acknowledged. ``But I’ve read about him _ it’s one of the things that has inspired me.″

Dan said Li surpassed other talented Chopin competitors, many of whom had more exposure to Western classical music, with his ability to express the subtlety and sophisticated emotions of the virtuoso’s works.

``His music evokes a sympathetic response,″ he said. ``It leads the audience into feeling his music.″

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