Chopin’s performance in public auditorium is said to be “almost inaudible”, likely due to his delicate physicality worsened by tuberculosis. By this standard, Yundi Li’s performance of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with TSO last week was more than adequate. However, to adopt this standard is to make a fundamental mistake, for the gist of Chopin’s life– as well as his music-making – is not their delicacy, but their heroic struggle against it. Delicacy exists in every note of his music, but it takes a real Chopinesque pianist to bring out the heroism. Yundi Li, who was awarded first prize in the 2000 Chopin Competition, didn’t succeed that evening with his hastily “poetic” manner. It was the argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter who brought out power and prowess inherent in Chopin’s music a week before in her performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 with TSO. Incidentally, she happens to be the Second Prize winner after Yundi Li in the very same competition.

I remember vividly that Fliter jumped up from the chair when the music stopped, leaving the stage with her arms thrown in the air, like an Olympic athlete. When the audience gave a heart-warming applause, she came back and hugged Peter Oudjian with such strength that almost choked him. Her happiness was apparent. Probably there is a contingent explanation to Fliter’s exuberance: just before the concert, Fliter caught a cold and had to cancel two recitals in the States. You would never guess it from this performance with her feet tapping the floor during Chopin’s most animated passages as if She was dancing with Chopin with her hands and feet together. This was real Chopin through and through. And this was after a struggle with illness, with physical weakness.

There is also a bodily explanation for Yundi Li’s precariousness: he was a lot thinner than last time when he played Prokovief’s Piano Concerto No. 2 brilliantly with TSO. Then, his poetry was so deeply rooted in his strength that the audience could physically feel it. Not this time unfortunately. But why is he so thin? This is totally my guess: he was probably forced by his recording company and agent to get rid of his extra body weight accumulated naturally with age and maturity, to keep his boyish – or rather, perceived androgyn looking. This possibility is not low considering they would care to use the gimmick of changing his name to YUNDI (yes, capitalized).

I say perceived androgyn because Yundi Li is definitely not effeminate. I’ve heard him talking in person: this is a quiet, a bit shy, but genuine young man, “provincial” in a very positive way, as this Wall Street Journal article beautifully conveyed. However, those who were brought up in a more-or-less hideous contemporary culture in the West, which tends to explain masculinity in a peculiar way, would not understand and appreciate it, as this article proves. And this culture would not understand that the beauty of Chopin’s music lies not in its salon delicacy, put its heroic passion that is ultimately personal and universal.

(Fliter is not as thin as seen in this video shot 8 years ago during the Chopin Competition. She has since blossomed into a even more beautiful woman in her 30s)

(Yundi Li tries to stay young, but this is his truly youthful and sparkling performance in the same competition)

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