Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I was fortunate to be born into an artistic family that opened the door for me to explore music when I was very young. While both my parents were not in the music business, my dad had a strong passion for classical music. He exposed me to the grace and magnificence of classical music as early 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 four and had my first public performance at age of six, by then piano has become an integral part of my life.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I had the privilege to be tutored by some of the most skilled and talented pianists in my budding career. Every one of them had taught me different aspects in mastering the piano, notably for techniques, discipline and emotion.
In my years in Royal Academy of Music, I studied under Professor Carole Presland. Under her rigorous tutorage, I was able to build a solid foundation in piano works and her relentless pursuit of perfection imparted to me. She had vastly increased my exposures to various composers and repertoires, laying paths for me to explore the immense universe of classical music. Her passion for music still inspires me deeply today that I always set higher targets for myself and only achieve the best that I can be.
Professor Paul Janes coached me during my Masters of Performance studies in Royal Northern College of Music. He is very meticulous and trained me to focus on the small, intrinsic parts of a play. As such, I refined my piano techniques enormously under his guidance. At the same time, he helped me to develop my interpretation and control in higher forms of classical music. This allowed me to inject my emotions into details during performances, thereby representing classical music in my very own style.
I was honored to be coached by Deniz Gelenbe for my Artist diploma: she helped me to refine my style. Critically, she opened my eyes to look at each piece of performance in an art form more than a demonstration. I am also very grateful for all the opportunities that she presented to me to achieve further in my performance career.
Last but not least, Professor Gabriele Bolducci inspired me deeply with his passion and showed me the dedication and romantic side of music. He taught me to strike the perfect balance between control and spontaneous during a performance, as well as to comprehend music deeply from within the heart.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I think challenge is on how to introduce classical music in a modern society. I always try to promote classical music in different contemporary ways to attract more people to enjoy this art form. I hope to invent ways to change the perception of classical music as it is understood by most people. Cross the classical boundary into a more popular acceptance. Transform distant elegance into music that is closer to the heart.
My next new album, that will soon be released, is an innovation based on the Franck violin sonata. I have added the sounds from the nature and other elements to describe a beautiful love story. This is an interpretation of classical music in a novel way that I always try to strike, giving a new musical imagination. Music is not just notes on the menu script, it’s a direct expression of the feelings, and the life experience of sharing and exchange.
Next challenge is always on the interpretation of the original composer’s state of mind. We live in very different 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.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
My new album includes music by the English composer Frank Bridge (his ‘Three Sketches’), and this is the reflection of my musical life in the UK. I also enjoy traveling very much and one of my favourite cities in Europe is Venice. So I have included the Tarantella da Guillaume Louis Cottrau from Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage: Venezia e Napoli. This a good example of Liszt’s boundless imagination, musical intelligence and technicality. The flawless and transparent notes recreate a lively tarantella while the centre of the piece shows his romantic passion. The music also always brings back wonderful memories in the beautiful city of Venice and lets me relive the moments.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I like the works from a lot of composers, but out of them all, I like to perform music by Liszt the best. His poetically inspired pieces are both romantic and candid, just like his personality. I felt I do share a similar personality. I have also a deep fondness in Rachmaninov’s No.3 Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. These two inspiring pieces remind me of my childhood days when I started my journey in classical piano. My deep emotional attachment to these pieces has always lead me to perform them with expressions that are unique and personal to my life.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I tend to have long-term projects for the next few years which I have a general theme, while the seasonal repertories will be a combination of the theme and my current interests. The way I make my repertoire choices is exactly like how a chief will be preparing a succulent meal for his honoured guests. I believe a good program will be a combination of pieces that each compliment one other, while giving the entire repertoire a story to follow. Each piece will be different and unique on their own that allow audiences to go through a wonderful sensual journey. The starting piece will sooth audience into the atmosphere and condition their minds for the excitement that is going to follow. Later pieces will bring audiences the picture of the creations and invite them into the musical world that I wish them to experience. Lastly concludes with a twist and unwind of the intersecting emotions which leaves the audience with curiosity and a lasting memory.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I love to perform in different locations and venues. Each venue that I have performed in brings new audiences and I enjoy interactions with them through the language of music. Some of the most amazing places I have performed in include the Royal Albert Hall and Wigmore hall.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Martha Argerich, Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz. I was fortunate to be introduced to Martha Argerich by my professor Gabriele Bolducci.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My most memorable performance was as the winner of the concerto competition concert on 11th December 2015 where I performed the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto with conductor Mark Heron. I was nervous before my performance as my parents had traveled from China to give me their support. The moment I stepped onto the stage and came under the limelight, I saw them and their smiles instilled me with confidence and assurance, and I felt my emotions became calm. From 20 years of going through the crests and troughs of piano training, I wanted my parents to witness that I have carried on their passion in classical music and wanted to show my appreciation to them for always supporting me during my journey. The performance was for them. I immersed myself totally into the music and let my heart fly with the audience. I demonstrated the best of me and my training, and each note was authentic to my aspirations. The performance was a huge success.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be yourself! Music has no boundaries and transcends cultural as well as generational barriers. So one should not imitate other works and let the true expression be one’s self. No matter the complexity of composition, music will be best represented by simplicity in performing that allows the audience to feel the heart of the performer, and simplicity is to be yourself and be passionate.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I see myself as a better performing pianist in 10 years’ time. On top of that, I wish to introduce classical music to more people. I hope to create my own style of combining elements of contemporary senses into classics that welcomes younger generations to experience the art form. I want to share my experience via music and hope to resonate with more people as I explore this journey.
Sunny Li’s new album of music by Frank Bridge, Franz Liszt and Maurice Ravel is available now