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As the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 2023 Young Artist in Association, violinist Christian Li showcases talent beyond his 15 years. Stephanie Bunbury speaks to Australia’s rising musical superstar.

Words by Stephanie Bunbury. First published by ENCORE: The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Magazine.

Photography: Albert Comper

Christian Li started learning the violin when he was five. Ten years on, he can’t remember the first classical piece he ever heard but recalls the first violin piece he passionately listened to: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, which now sits at the heart of his second album Discovering Mendelssohn. “My parents started me on piano and violin when I was around five-years-old as a hobby, but I gravitated towards the violin because I found it easier to learn and express my feelings. I was also captivated by the lyrical sound of the violin,” he says. “I remember my first violin teacher telling my mum I’m special, so we took it seriously. Looking back, I’d say it was their recognition and encouragement that gradually made me enjoy practising and performing. Then I fell in love with classical music.”

Two years later, he started working with Head of Violin at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) Dr Robin Wilson. “He wasn’t very advanced at that stage,” Wilson recalls. “He was playing little Suzuki pieces [from the recognised Suzuki method for teaching music to children]. What I noticed, however, was a very strong, genuine and what seemed to be innate desire to communicate through his instrument. That was very unusual for such a young child. He was somehow just feeling the intrinsic emotion in the music.”

"He was somehow just feeling the intrinsic emotion in the music.”

Unlike many children, Li also had firm ideas of how each piece should be played. Wilson would suggest different phrasing or a hypothetical meaning behind a passage and this little boy would stand his ground. “He would have already thought about it and come up with his own way, or his own phrasing or idea of what that phrase actually meant and he would have practised it that way and felt very convinced about it. Which is really wonderful. You want someone to be their own musician. To have autonomy.”

Jump another three years from Wilson’s first encounter with Li, and the now 10-year-old is competing in the biennial Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists competition. With his rendition of Summer from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the newly commissioned Self in Mind by South Korean composer Jaehyuck Choi, Li became the competition’s youngest ever winner in the Junior Division, sharing top honours with 11-year-old Singaporean Chloe Chua.

Unsurprisingly, more milestones followed. At 12, Li became the youngest classical artist to be signed with British record label Decca Classics. For his first album, he returned to The Four Seasons, recorded with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, where he is now the Young Artist in Association. “When you look at the way he directs from the violin on the Four Seasons recording, it is amazing that someone of his age has the understanding of the music and the conviction to bring the music alive,” says the Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Jaime Martín. “He’s strong about it and it’s not something he has just learned. It’s something that comes from him.”

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Inspired by the Greats

Li still loves Vivaldi’s masterwork, he says, although he thinks his current favourite in the composers’ pantheon is Tchaikovsky. “His music is very romantic, passionate and heartfelt.” But Li’s favourites change all the time. There is, of course, Mendelssohn; along with Sibelius, whose fiendishly tricky violin concerto he performed with the MSO in April. And then there is Mozart.

Mozart, famously, started composing at the age of five. There is always anxiety around young performers under pressure, but classical music has a history of prodigies. Mendelssohn wrote his officially recognised First Symphony when he was only 15, but he had already written 13 symphonies that are not counted. In September, Li will play Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3, which Mozart wrote at 19, to audiences in Geelong and Melbourne. “I always wanted to perform Mozart’s concertos, because the age when he composed those concertos, he was very young,” says Li. “Similar to my age. I feel sometimes young artists can better capture his innocent spirit of the music.”

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Getting to the Top

Li did not grow up in a musical household. His mother Katherine Liu emigrated from China and is a certified accountant. His father George Li is an electronics engineer. Their preferred listening, according to their son, is popular Chinese music. There is music in the family, however. Before the pandemic, they would go back to China every year to visit his mother’s parents. “My grandfather plays piano and accordion,” says Li. “I think he’s really talented and I might have gotten my talent from him.” It was in China that he won his first big prize: the Golden Beijing violin competition. That was in 2014; he was seven.

Inevitably, life for the Li family has increasingly had to fit around music. As a student at Scotch College, he was able to practise for two hours a day after school. “But on the weekends and term breaks when I had more free time I would practice more, like four to six hours. We just do it. I think everything fits quite well.”

Last year, he studied at The Juilliard School in New York, accompanied by his mother while his father stayed in Melbourne. Li also attended the Professional Children’s School where schoolwork was tailored to allow for more practice every day.

“At the professional school, they support every student’s career and give them time off school and not much homework,” says Li. He will be similarly focused next year at the Menuhin school in Surrey, just outside London, where his regular teacher Robin Wilson has taken up a professorship.

His core curriculum in New York consisted of mathematics, English, biology and a drama elective. Another kind of performance, then? “I feel they’re a bit different, but it’s great to practise being on stage,” he says. “It helps maintain your confidence – also it’s teamwork, interacting and improvising.” He and a couple of friends worked up a script where they created their own superheroes. “We had a competition for who was more powerful.” It ended with a fight: a typical teenage moment, by the sound of it.

Undoubtedly, parental support is essential. That said, a child musician must want to succeed independently. “Christian’s parents never wanted to force him to play the instrument against his will, but they were very willing to do whatever it took if he were going to play this instrument,” says Dr Wilson. “There is a very strong work ethic there and a lot of discipline behind what he does but really, the intensity comes from him. If he’s left alone in the house he is going to practise. He doesn’t need to be told.”

Li has said in various interviews he enjoys bike riding, reading Harry Potter and visiting the Science Museum in London between concerts, but five hours of practice a day doesn’t leave a lot of time for other things. “Look, it’s a mistake to say that someone who does anything to a truly exceptional or elite level, can have a completely normal childhood, so of course there are sacrifices,” says Dr Wilson. “I would say spending time with other children is one thing that suffers. One reason why, for example, a specialist music school like Yehudi Menuhin is a wonderful place is that you’re around like-minded kids of your own age.”

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Li performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto under the renowned Sir Andrew Davis at Hamer Hall

What comes next?

“Well, right now I am very interested in composition,” says Li. “I took courses and I also have written some short piano pieces and sonatas on my laptop using music notation software. I’ll share them with my friends to find out what they think of them. I’ll even get my pianist friend (and ANAM alumnus) Laurence Matheson to play them.” He’s not sure where that will lead. “I think with composition you just have to try it as you go.”

And further down the line, says Dr Wilson, his advanced study will depend on what his artistic needs are. Especially given that he is clearly in his element on stage. Martín recalls Li walking on stage with the Swedish Philharmonia to play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto which he had played under Sir Andrew Davis with the MSO. He beamed out at the audience and they beamed back. “He has this kind of magnetic force with the audience, they love him from the moment he comes on the stage,” says Martín.

His purpose, says Li, is to draw people into his musical world. “To get someone who plays well at age 15: you can find that around the world,” says Martín. “But to find someone who at age 15 not only plays well but listens to the orchestra: he has a level of maturity that is remarkable, along with this refreshing talent. For people like me – and his teacher, his mum, everybody – to look at him is exciting, because you wonder where it will stop? He could do anything.”

Prodigies: Mozart and Mendelssohn

Witness Christian Li’s masterful display of the violin when he performs alongside the MSO in the Prodigies: Mozart and Mendelssohn concert on 1 & 2 September.

1 September 2023 at 7.30pm
Costa Hall, Geelong

2 September 2023 at 7.30pm
Melbourne Recital Centre

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