Interview with London based Chinese pianist Sunny Li

It is accurate to say that this newly crowned Steinway Artist lives and breathes music. At the age of 4, young Li Yun (Sunny) was so curious and fascinated by her father’s love for classical music that she took interest in learning the piano.

At the age of 16, Sunny left her home in China to study at the Royal Academy of Music, UK. Now at 26, Sunny not only has performed in major concert halls and venues around the UK and Europe, and has won prestigious awards such as 2012 Liszt Memorable Prizes China-International Piano Open Competition (1st), 56th Grotrain-Steinweg Schumann International Competition (1st), 2016 Grand Prize Virtuoso International Competition (2nd), and more. To add to her list of achievements, her album ‘Sunny Li Piano’ was selected as the best selling classical album on Amazon in 2016.

Most of us would remember her as the Chinese female pianist who caused a social media storm with over a million views, garnering much admiration as she played Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee on two pianos at the same time! For a song renowned for challenging the dexterity, accuracy and speed of any pianist, viewers took note of Sunny’s calm demeanor and composure throughout the one-minute clip. Her true intent? It was to introduce classical music in a fun and creative manner for a younger audience.

Now as the year comes to a close, Emmanuelle Khoo catches up with this up-and-coming talent to talk about the highlights of 2017: from her UK concert tour, appointment as Steinway Artist and recent endorsement by the Arts Council England.

 Tell us about some of the highlights from your recent UK tour.

This spring, I performed in more than 20 concerts in various cities around the UK: London, Cambridge, Oxford, Watford, etc. The concert in Faversham Assembly Hall left the most lasting impression. In a usual concert hall, the audience would be a good distance away from the musician, but here, the audience could gather around the piano in a very close and intimate setting; so intimate to an extent I could feel their emotions in rhythm with the music. When I finished Liebestraum by Liszt, I still remember how some of the audience had tears running down their cheeks; this reply of such genuine emotions would always inspire me to play with all my heart.

At the end of the concert, I was given a standing ovation. Many later came to express their appreciation for the performance. There was even one elderly lady who said my music reminded her of her younger days when her husband was around, and she was greatly thankful that I helped her relive some of her old memories. I truly believe a good musician must connect the past with the future and let music be the language that tells the stories of our lives; every moment is unique, memorable and builds onto who we are.

How does the music scene in the UK differ compared to China?

UK’s classical music scene is very mature and developed, so I see a lot more opportunities to learn and perform here. It isn’t just the musical atmosphere that I enjoy, but the piano concerts, the symphonies and operas. It’s brilliant!

Western classical music in China is still a growing market, I think. More and more people are starting to learn the piano and we have a lot of talented musicians bringing good Western classical music back into China. With a growing interest in both Chinese classical music and Western classical music, China is a facing a golden period of progress and innovation in this area. I am very much looking forward to the development and hope to be a part of it.

Who is your biggest inspiration of all time?

My family has been my biggest inspiration. Although my parents are not in the music business, my dad always has a strong passion for classical music. He exposed me to the world of classical music for as long as I can remember. I began to love classical music under his influence and wanted to carry his passion forward. I started learning piano at the age of 4 and had my first public performance at age of 6. At that point, the piano has already become an integral part of my life. Throughout my time seeking knowledge and perfecting my skills, my family has always supported me though the good and the bad. My life and stories are never complete without them.

Which composer whose pieces you have most affinity with?

Out of all my favourite composers, I like to perform pieces from Liszt. His pieces are passionate, candid, and true to his own personality. Perhaps, it is similar to my own. When it comes to individual pieces, I am also very fond of Rachmaninov’s No.3 Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. These two inspiring pieces remind me of my childhood when I started my journey in classical piano. My deep emotional attachments to these pieces have always led me to perform them with expressions that were unique and personal to my life. Recently, I took a liking to Frederic Chopin’s music. I find myself drawn to his Nocturne No.21 in C Minor, Op. Posth and Ballade No.4 in F Minor, Op52. for their astonishing composure, peacefulness and elegance. No one understands the piano better than “the poet of the piano”.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced in your career?

My challenge is always on the interpretation of the original composer’s state of mind. We live in very different periods and societies. In order to tell a story accurately, I believe the pianist will have to truly live in the world of the composer. This can be achieved by understanding the life of the composer, learning from the masters on interpretations, as well as gathering from experience that I have in my life.

Name the three key traits you think every concert pianist should have.

There are a lot of traits to become a good concert pianist.

Firstly, I believe a good concert pianist needs to be able to visualise sound in the compound of performance. Before the actual concert, a good pianist should observe the concert venue and consider how sound would travel through the space. Unlike other instruments such as strings or woodwinds, pianists have to adjust to the sound, the texture and the touch of the keyboard in a very short period of time before the concert starts.

Secondly, a good concert pianist needs to know how to arrange the repertoire on the program to bring the best experience to the audience. In my opinion, making good repertoire choices is equivalent to how a professional chef prepares a succulent meal for the honoured guests. I believe a good program is a combination of pieces that compliment one another, while giving the entire repertoire a story to follow. Each piece will be different and unique on their own, with the intention of having the audience to go through a wonderful sensual journey.

Finally, the third most important trait is to have a good imagination and appreciation of life. A good pianist needs to observe life and translate the senses and emotions into music.

In January 2017, one of your YouTube videos went viral. You stunned everyone with your impressive take on Flight of the Bumblebee, playing on two pianos at the same time! As a tech-savvy millennial and a young musician, how do you describe your relationship with social media?

I find social media as an effective channel to reach out to public. It is great to communicate easily with classical music fans across the globe on ideas and thoughts. I greatly encourage all young musicians to make good use of social media and technology in general. However, as with any great tools, it comes with great responsibilities. While social media brings people closer from all walks of life, I find there is a need to ensure the essence and core of classical music is carried forward in the real world.

 In May 2017, you were appointed as a Steinway Artist by the headquarters of Steinway & Sons in Hamburg, Germany. Well done! Could you tell us more about it?

I feel very honored to be appointed as a Steinway Artist. This is one of the most prestigious recognition that a pianist can achieve – the dream of all classical pianists.

Well-known pianists such as Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, and Elton John, and legendary maestros such as Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Sergi Rachmaninoff are all Steinway Artists. We also have Chinese Steinway artists like Lang Lang and Yundi Li. The process to becoming one is long and tedious, as it involves all aspects of a pianist’s works, including education, performances, released albums, critiques and publications in media.

So you have been endorsed by the Arts Council England as an “exceptional talent” as well! Please do tell us more.

Again, it is such an honour! This is one of my greatest recognitions in the mastery as well as contribution to the field of classical music in the UK. Each year the Arts Council selects less than 50 artists from around the world and I happen to be the only Chinese selected out of the vigorous selection this year. This endorsement allows me to freely explore opportunities to bring classical music to the public as well as further my career as a classical pianist in the UK.

Would you like to share with us any upcoming projects?

I am going to be participating in the Steinway Hall Concert Tour, starting from Steinway Hall in London, then performing across Europe including Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, etc. After the Europe tour, I will be playing in the US, then Asia. Next year, I am going to give a concert tour in the major concert halls in China. Currently, I am practicing some older pieces that can hopefully stir powerful emotions and nostalgia. I will be recording these pieces in an album called “Veni Vidi Amavi” or “I came, I saw, I loved…” in English.

Going forward, I will continue to introduce classical music to more people. I strive to create my own style of combining elements of contemporary senses into aged classics that welcomes younger generations to experience the art form. I wish to share my experience via music and hope to resonate with more people as I continue this journey as a pianist.

Check out Sunny Li’s albums:

April 2011: 昀韵, Sunny’s self-titled solo album, which included works from Chopin, Liszt and Moszkowski

May 2016: Sunny Li Piano, a joint-album with Edithouse which features works from Frank Bridge, Liszt and Ravel

Feb 2017: A Night with Mendelssohn: Live Concert, a live recording of concert with Hornton Orchestra which features Concerto No.1 and Symphony No1 from Felix Mendelssohn.

May 2017: Sonata in A Major for Piano and Violin, a recording inspired by the sound of nature and featuring works from César Franck.

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