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Originally published Friday, April 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Young violin phenom Chuanyun Li to play at Benaroya Hall

"Wow! Who IS that? " That is the response I've been getting when musicians hear the CD by the young Chinese-born violinist Chuanyun Li ...

Seattle Times music critic

Classical-music preview

Chuanyun Li

Violin recital, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $30-$75 (at the box office, Union Street and Third Avenue, or 206-292-2787 or www.ticketmaster.com; information, 206-383-7522).

"Wow! Who IS that?"

That is the response I've been getting when musicians hear the CD by the young Chinese-born violinist Chuanyun Li — especially the perpetual-motion opening of the Christian Sinding Suite in A Minor. Judging from this live recording, Li's bow arm must be one of the wonders of the violin world.

Li is the player of whom The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote, "His technique is so stupendous [that] there is no barrier between a musical thought and the sound that comes out of the violin." Li himself is a bit more self-critical, calling his playing style "passionate but maybe a bit wild!" in an e-mail exchange he recently made time for during a stop on his tour.

That tour comes to Seattle's Benaroya Hall on Monday, when we'll have a chance to find out what Li is like in person. Li's debut Seattle recital, with pianist Robert Koenig, includes plenty of technical challenges, including works of Kreisler, Liszt, Antonio Bazzini, Prokofiev (the Sonata No. 2 in D Major), Glazunov and Waxman (the "Carmen" Fantasy), as well as the "Sunshine over Tashkurgan" of Chen Gang.

Does this impassioned and demonstrative young player sound a bit like a very famous young Chinese pianist? It's not the first time Li has been linked to Lang Lang, who performed here just last week.

"He is my piano idol and hero!" writes Li. "Actually I have performed with him in the same concerts for several times before in China."

Like most musical prodigies, Li got a very early start on his instrument. Born to two violin-teaching parents, the fledgling fiddler began playing at age 3. Both parents studied violin in the Western tradition, but they faced many restrictions during the Cultural Revolution, when Western instruments and music essentially were banned. Li has quipped, "I hope I can be the counterrevolutionary of the Cultural Revolution."

In his first few years with the violin, Li was "a little bit reluctant" about practicing, but by the time he was 6, the early training had taken hold and he got enthusiastic. The honors and awards started coming early: At 5 he had already won national awards in Beijing, and at 11, in 1991, Li became the youngest-ever winner of the Wieniawski International Youth Competition. In 2006, Li was named "Best European New Artist" by the Eastern Europe Music Festival.

Li loves music and performing but admits, "I hate practicing." He's not too fond of competitions, either. "Pressures are scary and frightening," Li observes.

Li has been extraordinarily fortunate in the patronage of Geoffrey Fushi, who heads the Stradivari Society and in 2003 arranged the extended loan of a 1784 Guadagnini. This violin is "my secret weapon," according to Li, who considers it one of the greatest instruments he has played. And yes, he has played quite a few: Fushi, whom Li calls "such a generous entrepreneur of the musical instruments," made possible a concert DVD on which the young violinist plays such high-level Stradivarius violins as the 1707 "La Cathedrale," the 1708 "Ruby," the 1742 "Sloan" and the 1714 "Jackson," among several other instruments by Amati, Guadagnini and others — all provided for the occasion by the Stradivari Society. At the keyboard on the DVD (and in the upcoming Seattle recital) is the excellent Canadian pianist Robert Koenig, who also has partnered such violinists as Hilary Hahn, Pamela Frank, Elmar Oliveira and Sarah Chang.

Another coup for Li is signing with the IMG management roster, one of the most select in the business (he joins Murray Perahia, Itzhak Perlman, Hahn and a veritable galaxy of other stars). He'll officially join IMG later this month.

Li loves playing pop music on the piano (Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" is a particular favorite) when he isn't playing the violin. He's a big soccer fan; he enjoys Bruce Lee movies and an assortment of sports and games, including Play-

Station games, table tennis, badminton, tennis and swimming.

In short, he sounds like any other normal guy in his 20s — until he gets a violin under his chin. And then he sounds pretty amazing.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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