George Harliono, 16-year-old piano virtuoso, to perform with Valery Gergiev

Teenager invited to Russia to play Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with conductor and Mariinsky Orchestra

The extraordinary talent of a 16-year-old British pianist has been recognised with an invitation to give a concert with Valery Gergiev, one of the world’s foremost conductors.

George Harliono will perform Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto with the Russian maestro and the Mariinsky Orchestra in Vladivostok on Saturday night.

The performance comes after the teenager received an unexpected email from the Mariinsky Theatre, where Gergiev is artistic director, staging some of the 21st century’s most dynamic opera and ballet. The company’s website describes the young musician as a wunderkind.

Before flying to Russia, Harliono said: “They asked if I wanted to perform, so obviously I said yes.”

He spoke of the excitement of playing with such a renowned conductor. As a British pianist, he felt “very proud to perform Rachmaninov in Russia because it’s one of the biggest Russian pieces of music, at the heart of the Russian repertoire”.

Harliono plays Tchaikovsky with Alexander Sladkovsky conducting the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra.

Gergiev, the former principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra who now also heads the Munich Philharmonic, made his name as an interpreter of the music of his native Russia. Critics have described him as a “maestro extraordinaire”, applauding his “formidable fire-power on the rostrum”.

Other leading musicians have also recognised Harliono’s promise. Vladimir Ashkenazy and his son Vovka have been so impressed that they have refused any payment for tuition. Harliono has stayed with them in Switzerland for private classes.

Harliono takes up a full four-year scholarship awarded by the Royal College of Music in London next month. Prof Vanessa Latarche, the conservatoire’s head of keyboard studies, described his talent as phenomenal, noting that he was coming to the RCM at an unusually young age.

Harliono was born in Hackney, east London, and now lives near Cambridge. He started playing the piano aged six and now practises for up to eight hours a day. His father, David Evans, said: “George has performed in Russia a few times, but this is amazing.”

He said his son’s talent was “nothing to do with myself or my wife,” yet all three of their children are all extremely musical.

Without the RCM scholarship, the family could never have afforded to fund Harliono’s training, Evans said: “In this country, for the arts, there’s no funding ... Pretty much every penny we have goes on this ... George wants to be a pianist and this is the only way.”

Harliono gave his first one-hour solo recital aged nine. He has since performed worldwide. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto at the Moscow Conservatory in 2016 was broadcast live on Russian national TV. He has also performed with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra.

Evans paid tribute to the acclaimed Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, who performs with Gergiev at the BBC Proms on 3 September, for promoting his son’s talent in Russia. Another key figure is Alexander Sladkovsky, who gave Harliono the chance to perform Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto with the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra in Kazan this year.

George Harliono
George Harliono was home-schooled from the age of 13. Photograph: David Lee

Evans said: “It does seem like a real shame that a British pianist has to rely on Russia to gain recognition.”

He has had to educate his son at home since he was 13 because schools did not appreciate the demands of a child with such musical talent. “If you’re good at tennis or football, schools tend to recognise that. A pianist? Really? [They’d say] ‘Why have you got to do that competition? You did a competition earlier this year.’”

Harliono has studied privately with Latarche for the past year. She first heard him play about 18 months ago in Moscow, when he took part in a competition there. “The Russians have got their eye on him, which is great,” she said.

Her other current students include Martin James Bartlett, who won the BBC Young Musician award in 2014, aged 17. “I’m thrilled that we’re able now to find some good British talent,” she said. “It’s been quiet on the British piano front.”

Her comments come two years after Dame Fanny Waterman, the co-founder of the prestigious Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, told the Observer that the future of piano-playing in the UK was in peril.

Waterman said Britain was failing to produce performers who could compete internationally. She blamed the popularity of electric keyboards and children starting to learn the piano at a later age in the UK than in other countries.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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