10 Minutes With…Classical Music Sensation Yundi

Music “Is One Of The Only Things In This World That Doesn’t Judge Or Have Boundaries”

Image courtesy of Uli Weber / DG / Mercury Classics

Above all else, classical pianist Yundi (李云迪, aka Li Yundi) is a true global phenomenon. Over a decade ago, Yundi — then only a teenager — rose from obscurity to become the youngest winner of the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition award after 13 unclaimed years. Yet in addition to his reputation as a piano icon, Yundi is one of the more interesting figures in modern Chinese classical music, having most recently been smeared with titillating scandal.

Recently, Jing Daily, open mind in tow, caught up with Yundi at the Langham Hotel in London to discover whether he is indeed a pianist prodigy or philharmonic philanderer.

Jing Daily (JD): You are regarded as a leading exponent of Chopin’s music, but on your new album with Deutsche Grammophon, you recorded Beethoven’s later sonatas. Why did you feel the need to incorporate his music on the new album?

Yundi (Y): I recently rekindled my love and admiration for Beethoven. This newfound love came from a connection, a passion and romanticism that I never discovered before. The sonatas towards the end of his life have an untreated energy, which I allied with. The new album is the fruition of a colossal challenge I set upon myself. I am living a new era of my life, a new character is forming and Beethoven expresses this evolutionary transition. This is a statement album of where I am now, full of fervor and life.

JD: You spend a lot of time in Germany. Why is that?

Y: The story began for me there. After winning the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Award, [Germany] was my home for over half a year. I hold a deep fondness and nostalgia towards that country that I consider my second home. Germany has incredibly beautiful untapped concert halls that I regularly revisit. Beethoven was from there, too, so there’s no better reason. (laughs)

Yundi in London (Image: Alessa Beatriz for Jing Daily)

JD: I’ve heard that when you play the same piece over time it always sounds different. How have you developed as an artist over the years?

Y: It is normal for me to play the same song over time and [it always sounds] diverse. Akin to Beethoven, there were different keys and elements as he got older within the same piece. I have grown from a little boy to a man. The music played comes from a place I can’t express — that’s an integral part of my being, so the sound matures with me. It grows with me. The confidence gained over the years influenced my harmony to become powerful and vivid. Now when I hear Chopin it invokes a completely different feeling from ten years ago.

I communicate that with my audience. Only when I play does the audience see the true me.

JD: China’s concerto consumption is growing, but do you think it will last to become a fundamental aspect of their culture?

Y: Absolutely. China’s economic boom hasn’t just opened doors, but also their senses, their ears are now enjoying this melody. We now have the space and support from the government implementing this Western tradition in schools and social activities. It’s a good situation to be in — I’m incredibly proud. Artists around the world are investing to put their mark, their roots [there], and it will only flourish.

People are feeding their hunger by building concert halls, learning how to play, going to recitals and supporting the classical arts. Classical music has become an everyday part of life for children in China and will stay with them.

JD: You are enjoying unprecedented success, and the elephant in the room is the scandal that surrounds you. Divorced, philanderer, homosexual relationships with pop stars, fans threatening editors, an aggressive rivalry with Lang Lang and the list goes on. How do you respond to that?

Y: (laughs) All unfounded rumours that I’ve come to expect with success. Being a public figure in China means I am, and will continue to be, plagued by untruths. They are simply not true and I lead a humble life. I accept as true that my fans and music lovers realize it is not important.

The composition, the albums, the concerts, the recitals are what I dedicate my heart and mind to. A musician’s life is very long and I’ve got a long way to go. I hope to never lose sight of that.

JD: You’ve been criticized for playing up the rumors, unfounded or not, bringing attention to yourself. The publicity generated has without question brought classical music to a younger generation and audience, but has it been at the cost of your artistic integrity?

Yundi (Image: Alessa Beatriz for Jing Daily)

Y: Like music, people will have their own interpretation of who I am. Their opinion isn’t who I really am. Lessons are here to be learned, and I’m learning them. I say just do what you think and love. When you hear my music, truly hear it, and you can unite and discover the truth of who I am for yourself. Who can control people’s perceptions?

When I studied music at seven years old, I practiced without question, lived, breathed it, even today, now it’s 90 percent of what goes through my mind every day. Music is the only aspect of my life I am dedicated to. The rumors will not define me, I will only allow my music to. The cost of my integrity, what is it really worth?

Integrity is just a concept, an expectation and a judge on my moral character but nobody can or should make that judgment. I should be judged on my ability to do justice to the greatest composers, which I do with the height of respect and admiration.

JD: Lang Lang has always publically been regarded as your adversary. Would you like to take the chance to set the record straight?

Y: This was created by the media. We’re both classical pianists, the same age, from the East, so it was an easy target to pit me against [him] for headlines. Nothing to do with me, no hostility between us whatsoever. I tell my fans to never be jealous — be a good man and work hard, as it’s what I believe. People just assume what they’ve read is true. The reality is I’d shake his hand if he was right here.

JD: Finally, what would you like to communicate and express to the Jing Daily readers?

Y: Make no mistake, music unites us. It is one of the only things in this world that doesn’t judge or have boundaries. When you see a true artist on stage it is the only time you can connect with them. I want my music to touch people. In the future I want to give them more music and all I have, it’s my obsession to share. The only time I’m eloquent is when I play. I think this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Yundi will perform live at the Royal Festival Hall in London on April 18, 2013. For tickets and more information, click here.

Alexa Beatriz is a London-based Economics graduate and independent journalist from Spain. In addition to being the UK correspondent for AnyWearStyle.com, Beatriz is the blogger behind www.thebeatrizpotter.com.

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