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There is no question who is today’s number one in classical music, measured in terms of world fame.
A decade ago it would have been Luciano Pavarotti, before him Maria Callas. The storm-tossed diva was preceded by Arturo Toscanini, who had 40 percent name-check recognition among adult Americans, and before him there was Enrico Caruso, the first best-seller on record. These four dominated the first century in human history when music was industrialised and reputation manufactured.
Pavarotti’s death in 2007 left music without a luminary – but not for long. Opening last summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, resplendent in a rock-star white suit with a fairy-child accompanist amid a sea of green elves, the Chinese pianist Lang Lang launched himself into a stratosphere of celebrity. Five billion people watched, and remembered.
In China, Lang Lang, 26, was already the yes-we-can symbol of future world power. His picture is blazoned eight storeys high up the side of buildings from Hong Kong to Harbin. Some 30 million children are being taught to play the piano in the vain parental hope of emulating his achievement. Concert halls are being built in the expectation that he will play in them.
Since the Olympics he has become a global brand who plays New York’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, London’s Royal Variety Performance and the Nobel Prize concert in Stockholm. Adidas named a shoe after him. Sony and the China Merchant Bank use him as a salesman. He occupies a realm of stardom far beyond the quavering concerns of classical music – and yet he remains, decidedly and in principle, a dedicated classical musician.
At the end of this month, Lang Lang will have a week’s residency at London's Barbican Centre, playing astringent Bartók, a new concerto by Tan Dun and a solo recital. The moment his name goes up on billboards, you can take 20 years off the audience age and expect a certain sniffiness in the reviews.
There is a painful dichotomy in classical attitudes towards Lang Lang. One part of the concert world desperately wants his youth and glamour, the other part wishes he could be, well, a bit less fresh-faced and spiky-haired, a bit less loud. Few understand what makes him tick, why he plays as he does, whether he is gay or straight and where the hell he is taking the western pianistic tradition.
Some of the answers to those conundra can be found in the UK edition of his autobiography published this month (by Aurum Press), a precocious memoir but one packed with enough conflict to last several lives. A child of strong-willed parents who suffered, along with most educated Chinese, during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, he was raised on an air force barracks where his father played the two-stringed erhu in the orchestra and his mother recounted forsaken dreams of being a singer. He watched Superman on television but preferred a cartoon called Monkey King ‘because he did not fall for women – he had no need of a love life’. He began piano lessons at three years old, made his public debut at five.
At nine, he failed an audition to the Beijing Conservatory and was ordered by his father to swallow a bottle of pills and kill himself. Failure, after all the family’s efforts on his behalf, was not to be tolerated. Lang Lang told me this story two years ago in a BBC studio and the air froze. He could not see why I found it strange that he should remain devoted to his tyrannical parent and he was unable to offer any resolution to their collision, beyond saying that they did not speak for a month after the incident. When he played his first recital at Carnegie Hall, he brought his austere father on stage for an encore.
The lower slopes of musical life in China are a scramble for competition victories. Lang Lang won his first at age 10. The next year, on his way to Germany, he was told by his teacher ‘don’t expect to be Number One’ because the government was sending two superior pianists. I must be Number One became Lang Lang’s motto. Nothing mattered, then or now, so long as he is number one.
He was lucky to be educated at the Curtis Institute in Philadephia by the grandfatherly Gary Graffman, both in musical knowledge and in the richness of cultures - including his own, of which he knew little. When he started giving concerts, the technique was perfect and the showmanship paramount.
I have heard him play with clangorous disregard for Beethoven’s refinements, an artillery battery that earned him the nickname Bang Bang, but he cannot give an anonymous performance or one that leaves an audience unmoved. Nor is he indifferent, as many travelling players are, to matters of the mind. He seeks periodic enlightenment from the likes of Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta, who tell him what he ought to be reading, how to develop intellectually.
Those close to him say he would like to have a girlfriend but cannot find the time, in his case a simple statement of fact. If Lang Lang is not in a concert hall, he’s on a plane - driven, as he repeats in the book, to maintain his status as number one.
His determination has kept Yundi Li, the Chopin prize winner, out of China’s best halls and other rivals at bay, but there is always another threat coming up behind. Lang Lang’s sights will be trained on Yuja Wang, a gorgeous 20 year-old who releases her debut recording on Deutsche Grammophon this month and will open the Lucerne Festival with Claudio Abbado this summer.
His ambitions set him at odds with his art. The urge to be Number One belongs to the sports field. An artist is supposed to express inner truths, not to dream of being the fastest, loudest and most famous. The concert hall is where people go to escape the competitive stress of daily life.
Yet Lang Lang is also a creature of his time, flourishing in an environment of trivial talent contests and celebrity gossip. He knows what it takes to rise against billion-to-one odds and what he needs to do to stay in the public eye. Others, less dedicated, have cashed in a shot of fame on the easy cash of crossover albums. Not Lang Lang. He’s in for the long term and that means the sustained effort of classical performance, allied to an unceasing search for mass acclaim. He is the face of classical music for the next half-century, like it or not. He is already more famous in many parts of the world than the Beatles - and we all know whose fame they outshone.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]