There was a lot of neck craning going on inside St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church Sunday afternoon as George Li performed Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra.
The problem was that if you were anywhere beyond the first half-dozen rows of seats, you probably had to wriggle around for a clear shot of the 15-year-old Massachusetts piano phenom. With the hall packed, there were few if any seats with an unobstructed view courtesy a taller person sitting in front of you.
And when George took the stage, that guy two rows up and a head taller than you sat up straighter and was even taller. Now he was a wall between you and the stage.
So you wiggled left or right and caught a sliver of a glimpse — Geroge's young hands scaling the piano with incisive technical prowess and inspired intensity. The pain in your neck was just starting to flare up, but you didn't care. George's interpretation of Chopin's concerto — the first of only two concertos the famous Polish composer penned — was intuitive beyond his years. George was exciting to watch even when he wasn't playing. He sat on the bench, swaying in time to the music being played flawlessly by the orchestra under Conductor Linus Lerner and you just wandered what he was thinking. From his expression, his attention solely on the music; he seemed transformed to a place where the notes on the page become larger than life.
George's performance had the electric air of excitement about it. As his graceful fingers flew over the keyboard, you couldn't help draw comparisons to the Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who took the world by storm in the early 1990s when he was about George's age. (Ironically, Lang, who performs with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in a special concert Jan. 10, was a young unknown when he first played with the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music about a decade ago.)
Sunday's audience just shy of 500 gave George a standing ovation, which he reciprocated with a pair of encores — a sweet performance of a Chopin nocturne and a vituosic workout with Liszt's "La Campanella."
Sunday's concert also featured the world premiere of "Celebration," a delightful and energetic new work composed by SASO violist Richard White and dedicated to SASO supporter Dorothy Vanek. SASO also teamed up with the Muscular Dystrophy Association on Mussorgsky's-Ravel's "Pictures At An Exhibition." The MDA mounted a display in St. Andrew's hall and lobby of works from artists afflicted by some of the diseases under the MDA umbrella.
• Sunday also marked the "retirement" of sometime conductor and devoted SASO patron Irving Olson, who won the conducting shot at an orchestra fundraising event. Olson conducted the orchestra in a delightful, spirited reading of Johann Strauss's "Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka."
"At the age of 97," Olson joked with the audience, "nobody should have to do such strenuous work" as conducting.