Displaying what judges called virtuosic technique and a poetic style, Li beat out 97 participants to become the first gold medalist at the competition since 1985. In 1990 and 1995, the notoriously finicky panel of judges refused to award anyone first place, prompting criticism and bitterness in the piano-playing world. Li is also the first Chinese and one of the youngest contestants ever to claim the top prize in the competition's 73-year history.
His victory, which assures Li of an entree to the world's major concert halls and recording studios, has turned the pianist into an overnight sensation in his native land, where President Jiang Zemin is known to enjoy Western classical music and a member of the Communist Politburo requested 30 tickets to a hastily organized concert by Li and the China National Symphony here in Beijing in late November.
Li's sudden fame seems not to have fazed him. "I haven't changed, except that there are more performances now," he said shortly after arriving in Beijing from Shenzhen, the southern Chinese city where he now lives and studies.
Li, a wavy-haired teenager who likes to play pingpong in his spare time, maintains ties to his home province in the Chinese interior, Sichuan. Either his mother or his longtime coach, Dan Zhaoyi, always travels with him on tour. During an interview, Li is perched on the edge of the bed in his coach's hotel room, his reedy frame draped entirely in black--the only evident touch of the artiste about him. He is easygoing and sociable, an animated speaker who nods in comprehension at questions put to him in English.
On this chilly night, his mom and his agent are eager for Li to pay a late visit to the doctor to take care of a bothersome cough. They don't want it to detract from his performance, in 48 hours, of an all-Chopin program reprising his winning show in Warsaw, a difficult run through mazurkas, a scherzo, a polonaise and Concerto No. 1 in E minor.
The panel of 23 judges in Warsaw--including Martha Argerich, herself a winner of the competition 35 years ago--praised Li's approach to Chopin's music.
"The way he plays is very balanced," judge Edward Auer said after Li was declared the winner Oct. 20. "He is not the type of player who is admired by one part of the audience and hated by the other." Indeed, the entire auditorium in Warsaw erupted in a standing ovation after Li's rendition of the Concerto No. 1- even though four of the other five finalists had already performed the piece. "They play their way, I play my way," he said, then added with a populist flair: "I was playing for the people, not for the judges."
When he performs, Li's involvement with the music seems total. Expressions of lightness or seriousness flit across his malleable face. He half rises from the bench for more power on the keyboard. During one of the mazurkas Saturday, he lifted his left hand and seemed to gently conduct the solo playing of his right.
It is music like Chopin's from the Romantic period of the 19th century - stormy and serene, meditative and moody - that appeals to Li most. "It has something to do with my age," he explained. "At this age, young people are likely to show a lot of emotion. Chopin's compositions are well-matched with my inner state." Sure, but does an 18-year-old have the life experience, the spectrum of feeling, necessary to make sense of such complex works?
"Of course I can't play as maturely as the great pianists," Li acknowledged. "But Chopin wrote these pieces at a young age. He composed his concertos at 19. When you're young, you have a yearning for life and a desire to pursue new things. More established artists look at Chopin from a different point of view."
Certainly Li's life experiences have been different from those of some other young piano stars, many of whom get their start with a push from parents who are serious fans of music or are musicians themselves.
Neither of Li's parents has a musical background. His father is a staff member at a state-owned steel company in Sichuan, and his mother worked in a lab before quitting to supervise her son's nascent career full time in 1994.
Li's first instrument wasn't even the piano. He picked up the accordion as a 4-year-old and played for three years before switching to the piano. Buying him an upright cost his family most of its savings.
Although their son showed talent, his parents insisted that schoolwork be his first priority. "He was always an obedient child. His grades in elementary school were very good," his father, Li Chuan, said.
It was only after Li enrolled in a specialized music school that his parents allowed him to make the piano his main focus. Li began studying with teacher Dan in 1991, and when Dan moved from Sichuan province to Shenzhen, which borders on Hong Kong, the entire Li clan moved to be near him. In the beginning, some experts thought a piano career was out of the question for Li because of a simple fact: At age 12, his hands still had trouble reaching an octave.
"But I know you rarely encounter this kind of talent," said Dan, who encouraged his young pupil to stick with it. "Now he has a pianist's hands," which can span a 10th interval with no problem. Li practices eight hours a day - sometimes more, if a competition or concert looms. He still has just an upright piano at home, so rehearsals take place across the street at the Shenzhen Art School. His preferred piano is a Steinway -"German, not American," he specifies.
Li credits close coaching for his success and thinks that's where Chinese music students have an edge over their rivals from around the world. "Teachers here are very responsible," he said. "They can spend five to six hours with you working on one thing. They have time, unlike teachers elsewhere, who are off being maestros or judges, who are busy all year round."
Nonetheless, he admits, many of China's top-notch Western classical musicians go abroad to study. In fact, he's planning to do that himself, although he hasn't settled on a school yet. "I'll go where there's a good teacher. Which country isn't important," said Li, who has visited the U.S. four times. Last year, he won the Gina Bachauer Young Artists International Piano Competition in Salt Lake City, and in 1995, he came in third at the U.S. Stravinsky International Youth Piano Competition.
The $25,000 he won at the Chopin competition will go toward his schooling. "He still has a lot to learn," said teacher Dan. Li's goal is to build on his current success and to avoid fizzling out as many promising young lights have done before him. Among Li's role models are pianists Maurizio Pollini of Italy and Krystian Zimmerman of Poland, two previous winners of the Chopin competition who have gone on to major careers.
But they're role models, Li stressed, not idols. "Everybody has his own style," he said. "I don't want to be a carbon copy of Pollini. I want to play the music according to my own understanding."