Saturday, January 30, 2021, 7:30 pm
at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum


George Li pianist
A bracing, fearless account… Mr. Li’s playing combined youthful abandon with utter command. - The New York Times






Ludwig van Beethoven
Andante Favori in F Major, WoO 57

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato
Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile

~ Intermission ~

Franz Liszt
Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178  

“George Li appears courtesy of Warner Classics”
Listen to George Li’s album Tchaikovsky, Liszt

By Dr. Jannie Burdeti

Mr. Sherman’s legacy goes beyond his being a pianist, a legendary one at that. In fact, his pianism is only a microcosm of who he is - one gets the feeling when going to his concert that we aren’t just listening to music, but rather to Mr. Sherman’s mind and musical being. He beguiles and leads us into his world, and for 2 hours we are captivated and spellbound by the music that emits from his fingertips and spirit. Each time he plays, he achieves the impossible: he is able to convey such awe inspiring individualism while also paying deep respect and meticulous detail to the composer and the corresponding score. This is combined with a complete mastery of the keyboard to the point where playing transcends the piano, and where one is taken to a sheer musical paradise. I remember years ago when I was a carefree teenager, when Ms. Byun told me to voice an 8 note chord so that each voice had a character of their own, and thus make it 3 dimensional. I immediately balked at such a task, believing it to be impossible. The next week, I went to Mr. Sherman’s recital in Jordan Hall, and was taught firsthand what a 3 dimensional chord sounded like - the playing penetrates beyond the surface of the piano and the listener’s ear, and rather transmits throughout the entire body, and one is simply left awestruck at how a simple bass chord can sound like 8 different voices singing in harmony.

But Mr. Sherman is also an equally inspiring teacher. He somehow achieves the balance between an unwavering supreme standard for pianism and musicianship, while also encouraging individual artistic freedom - there isn’t one without the other. Again, his overwhelmingly strong spirit paves the path for this, as his convictions and philosophies about life, art and music guides and pushes us beyond our own limitations. He passionately sings for us, utters phrases of indescribable imagery, to help inspire us to understand the musical language and character of a given piece. We are shown the beauties of the Garden of Eden, and he is our guide who teaches us how to appreciate the sublime - and for that we are eternally grateful.

The program I have chosen features late masterworks by Beethoven and Liszt, two composers which are synonymous with the artistry of Mr. Sherman. Of course, he is the first American pianist to record the complete Beethoven sonatas and concerti, but his playing goes much further beyond that Herculean achievement. He is one of the few pianists I know that truly achieves the fine balance between character and intellect, between “white heat” and “cold blood,” while also having such firm and utterly convincing convictions about whatever piece of music he touches. I realize the enormous and the sheer impossibility of my task tonight, but can only do my best and will attempt to do the same. 

- George Li

Free admission, donation appreciated.
Face mask and social distancing mandated.
Children under 6 not admitted.

Reservation required

Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts



George Li pianist

A bracing, fearless account…Mr. Li’s playing combined youthful abandon with utter command. - The New York Times

Praised by the Washington Post for combining “staggering technical prowess, a sense of command and depth of expression,” pianist George Li possesses an effortless grace, brilliant virtuosity and poised authority far beyond his years. Since winning the Silver Medal at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, Li has rapidly established a major international reputation and performs regularly with some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors such as Gergiev, Dudamel, Honeck, Petrenko, Tilson Thomas and Long Yu.

Recent and upcoming concerto highlights include performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic, DSO Berlin, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Oslo Philharmonic, Orchestre National de Lyon, Sydney Symphony and St Petersburg Philharmonic. In 2018/19, Li makes his debut with the London Philharmonic, Montreal Symphony, Tokyo Symphony and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, embarks on a 11-city recital tour of China and is the soloist on the Russian National Orchestra’s major US tour with Mikhail Pletnev. He frequently appears with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, including performances at the Paris Philharmonie, Luxembourg Philharmonie, New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, Graffenegg Festival and in various venues throughout Russia.

In recital, Li performs at venues including Carnegie Hall, Davies Hall in San Francisco, the Mariinsky Theatre, Munich’s Gasteig, the Louvre, Seoul Arts Center, Tokyo’s Asahi Hall and Musashino Hall, NCPA Beijing, Shanghai Poly Theater and Amici della Musica Firenze, as well as appearances at major festivals including the Edinburgh International Festival, Ravinia Festival, Festival de Pâques in Aix-en-Provence Festival, and Montreux Festival.

An active chamber musician, Li has performed alongside James Ehnes, Noah Bendix-Balgley, Benjamin Beilman, Kian Soltani, Pablo Ferrandez and Daniel Lozakovich and future plans include collaborations with Daniel Hope, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Lawrence Power. Li is an exclusive Warner Classics recording artist, with his debut recital album released in October 2017 which was recorded live from the Mariinsky.

Li gave his first public performance at Boston’s Steinway Hall at the age of ten and in 2011, performed for President Obama at the White House in an evening honoring Chancellor Angela Merkel. Among Li’s many prizes, he was the recipient of the 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant, a recipient of the 2012 Gilmore Young Artist Award, and the First Prize winner of the 2010 Young Concert Artists International Auditions. In summer 2018, Li graduated from the Harvard University / New England Conservatory joint program, where he studied with Wha Kyung Byun. He is currently a candidate in New England Conservatory's prestigious and highly-selective Artist Diploma program.



By Dr. Jannie Burdeti

Ludwig van Beethoven: Andante favori in F Major, WoO 57

Beethoven’s “Andante favori,” composed between 1803 and 1804, was the castaway slow movement from his Waldstein Sonata, Op. 53. According to Alexander Wheelock Thayer (1817–97), the first biographer of Beethoven, a friend of the composer had suggested that he replace the second movement due to its length. Scholars have also suggested that the change was a result of Beethoven’s consideration for proportions and the imbalance of having two back-to-back rondos.. In 1805, the work was published as “No. 35,” and two years later reissued as “Andante favori.” Musicologist Robert Nosow writes that this numbering system that Beethoven used was an attempt to distinguish works that were “popular” and aimed to please the growing middle-class amateur, as opposed to those he labeled as “opuses” and “great” enough for posterity. Other works included in the separately numbered catalogue were variations on opera arias and other famous tunes of the day. The second publication of the work, then titled “Andante Favori,” meaning “Favorite Andante,” was renamed as such because it had become such an overwhelming success and was frequently programmed in Beethoven’s performances. Years later, he regretted its popularity: “I wish I had never written the piece. I cannot walk down a street [in Vienna] without hearing it coming through some window or other.”

In this delightful concert piece, we encounter a lesser-known side of the composer, one that is wistful, thoughtful, and lyrical. It begins with an easygoing theme in F major, looking ahead to the opening of his Sonata in F major, Op. 54, the piece that followed his Waldstein Sonata. Soon after, it trails off into the distant key of D-flat major, where one hears in the right hand of the piano the “horn motif,” which Beethoven would later reuse, most famously in the opening of his Les adieux Sonata, Op. 81a. Each reappearance of the opening theme is a variation of the initial statement. William Kinderman writes that the subsequent section in B-flat major, replete with octaves and figurations, is a “delicious mocking parody of Italian operatic style.” As the work comes to an end, the hands go to the farthest ends of the keyboard. This serves as a gentle close.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111

Jan Swafford, in his biography of Beethoven, recounts the near-mythic scene of Beethoven on his deathbed: “At 5:45, lightning lit up the chamber and there was a terrific clap of thunder. Suddenly Beethoven jerked into life, opened his eyes, raised his clenched fist into the air as if in defiance of it all, the whole mess of fate, the fickle gods, the worthless Viennese and corrupt aristocracy, the whole damned comedy.” According to Swafford, this account was handed down to posterity by the composer Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who was present at the scene. While Beethoven’s brother, who was also present, offered a different narrative, Hüttenbrenner’s was so compelling that this story has been the one handed down from generation to generation.

The image of Beethoven on his deathbed with clenched fists lifted towards the skies is a fitting one for the opening of his Sonata, Op. 111. The piece opens arrestingly in his archetypal key of C minor, with an impersonal force of nature like that of a thunderclap and lightning, answered by an upward, defiant sweep. The exposition of the sonata proper is a synthesis of Bachian counterpoint and Beethovian fury. The second theme offers a short-lived moment of respite and stasis before it is once more swept into the commotion and agony of human suffering. It is a rare example of Beethoven using fugal technique in an opening movement.

According to Richard Taruskin, the very utterance of “Beethoven” evokes the Romantic image of the furrowed-brow artist, alone in his contemplation of the sublime—a theme upon which Beethoven ponders and meditates in his second movement The glaring juxtaposition of this content with the rather deceptive title of “Arietta” (“Little Aria”), highlight an irony that is not uncommon is his late works. In the words of William Kinderman, the theme of this movement goes through a number of transfigurations. It undergoes a number of diminutions, evoking the compositional process which Beethoven used in the last variation of the third movement of his Op. 109 sonata. As the movement grows in ecstasy, it reaches a dynamic peak in the third variation, which bursts at the seams with an almost combustible energy. The note values increase steadily, leading to a trill. In the words of Maynard Solomon, it becomes “a shimmering sonic barrier that blurs any distinction between rapid movement and the depths of stasis.”András Schiff calls the return of the theme before the end a “Song of Thanksgiving.” We hear one final celestial utterance of it in the highest registers of the piano, already having been transmuted into the Kantian “starry skies.” Theodor Adorno writes of the ending as a “leave-taking.”

This piece was published twice in 1822: once in London by Muzio Clementi and dedicated to Antonie Brentano, and nearly simultaneously by Schlesinger and dedicated to Archduke Rudolf.

Franz Liszt: Sonata in B Minor, S. 178

Considered by many as his magnum opus, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor is exceptional in its content, scope, and architectural mastery. Alan Walker declares that it was “arguably one of the greatest keyboard works to come out of the nineteenth century. If Liszt had written nothing else, he would have to be ranked as a master on the strength of this work alone.” Unlike most of his other works, it does not contain programmatic descriptions, and the wide-ranging plethora of hermeneutic interpretations offered by pianists and other musicians alike are rendered insignificant when listed one after the other. Be it the Faustian legend, a depiction of the Garden of Eden, or an autobiographical sketch, the meaning intended by the composer was never revealed.

The appellation “Sonata” is significant. The piece functions as a sonata on two levels: locally and macrocosmically. Walker writes, “Not only are its four contrasting movements rolled into one, but they are themselves composed against a background of a full-scale sonata scheme—exposition, development, and recapitulation. . . . In short, Liszt has composed ‘a sonata across a sonata.’” Schubert's Wanderer Fantasie, which Liszt had come to know intimately as performer, arranger, and editor, would have certainly been influential on the structuring of this piece. The Wanderer Fantasie, too, contains four movements linked and unified by themes that undergo a change in character, otherwise known as “thematic transformation.” Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, more than any of his other works, is the greatest of his “transformation of themes.”

While having three primary leitmotifs (themes that recur throughout the piece, representing a specific idea), the sonata displays an astonishing degree of organicism. There is not one measure that is not deeply integrated with the rest of the work. With this in mind, the pianist Claudio Arrau once dubbed Liszt’s Sonata in B minor “Beethoven’s thirty-third piano sonata.”

It begins with a haunting introduction followed by a first theme consisting of two of the leitmotifs. The second theme, marked Grandioso, is everything the name implies. The slow movement is the work’s emotional center. The fugato third movement is astonishing in its role as the development section within the large-scale sonata form. According to manuscripts, Liszt had originally intended a loud, virtuosic ending, but later was inspired to opt for a sublimated, introspective finish.

Fifteen years earlier, in 1839, Robert Schumann had dedicated his Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, to Franz Liszt. As an open admirer of Schumann, Liszt did not feel until the completion of his Sonata in B minor that he had composed something worthy enough to reciprocate this gesture. Unfortunately, Schumann was never to see the score, as in 1853, when the work was completed, he had already been admitted to the asylum. Clara Schumann, who received it, thoroughly disliked it. Nonetheless, Liszt’s friend Richard Wagner wrote to the composer upon hearing it: “Dearest Franz, you were with me, the sonata is beautiful beyond comparison; great, sweet, deep and noble, sublime as you are yourself.”



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updated 2021