age of hyperbole, wunderkind is an overused word. Yet, there is no denying that
the musical world is full of them. If anyone qualifies for that elite group,
pianist Lang Lang certainly does. Born in 1982 in Shenyang, China, Lang Lang was
a serious piano student at three, won first prize in a local competition and
made his 'professional' debut at five, entered the prestigious Beijing Central
Music Conservatory at nine, and won first prizes in young pianist competitions
in Germany and Japan when he was all of fifteen. He graduated from the Curtis
Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied under Gary Graffman.
breakthrough came in 1999, when he replaced an ailing Andrι Watts at the Ravinia
Festival. Critics and the public were falling over themselves with words of
praise: 'stunning", "brilliant", "this is a talent in a million". Since then,
his career trajectory has been nothing short of meteoric. Now an exclusive
Deutsche Grammophon artist, his debut recording of Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn
piano concerti has garnered much media attention. His Carnegie Hall recital
debut last November was taped by DG for issue in March. The concert itself drew
polarized opinions: some found him too flamboyant and eccentric for his own
good, while others, arguably the majority in attendance, were dazzled and
couldn't get enough. One thing is certain his is a prodigious talent.
Behind that sweetly innocent
face and archetypal politeness is a young man of strong ambition and steely
determination, backed by stupendous talent and discipline. He also possesses a
strong sense of self and an appreciation for excellence found only in those
earmarked for greatness. Much has been written about how his parents, Guo-ren
Lang and Xiulan Zhou, made sacrifices to nurture the artistic development of
their only child, born during China's 'one child policy'. Before Lang Lang had
his second birthday, his parents had spent half their yearly income $300 U.S.
to purchase a piano. Strong discipline is part of growing up in many Chinese
families, and Lang Lang recalled in a previous interview that he came from a
stereotypical family, with a strict father and a kind mother. Guo-ren Lang quit
his job and moved with his son to Beijing, twelve hours from their family home
in Shenyang. His parents lived apart so he could attend the conservatory in
Beijing. It was only when Lang Lang bought a house in downtown Philadelphia,
after he became a star, that the family was reunited.
Only twenty-one, Lang Lang enjoys the high profile and media attention rarely
accorded a classical artist, appearing on Good Morning America and the
Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was named one of the "Top 20 Teens Who
Will Change the World" in People magazine two years ago. His performing schedule is not for the faint of
heart 2003 alone saw him play one hundred fifty concerts that took him to
three continents. LSM caught up with him last Halloween, as he was spending a
rare two days at home just before his recital at Pollack Hall in Montreal. He
came across as well spoken and personable, full of energy and enthusiasm, his
fluent but accented English peppered with the typical lingo of youth.
LSM: Who do you
admire as a pianist?
LL : Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubenstein. They are totally
different artists but both are great.
LSM: I heard you have
acquired a Steinway from Horowitz. Is that true?
LL : Yes, I have two 9-ft grand pianos in my house. One is from Horowitz...
not from him, but his piano (laughs). It was made in 1918,
and the other one is brand new
LSM: Is that other
piano also a Steinway?
LL : Absolutely. I think
Steinway is best. There is no way to beat Steinway!
LSM: What sound do you look for in a piano?
LL : A flexible sound. I like to
make many colours in a piano. I like a big sound (in a piano) that can hold a
lot of power, with a beautiful legato tone that is like singing. The piano
should not sound like a percussion instrument. Basically a good piano is like a
good player it should produce a complete picture. Good in the big stuff but
also in the delicate, small stuff. A good piano can make a huge
LSM: Do you have musical idols?
LL : That's very hard... I admire
sports athletes. I love Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods. I love the big sports guys.
The great athletes they look like artists when they play. They are creating
art. The top player in each field is an artist.
LSM: Are there Chinese athletes you admire?
LL : Yes, I like the ping-pong
players, the Olympic gold medallists (laughs)! They are the best in their
LSM: What about Chinese musicians?
LL : I love Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma.
I am playing a solo piece by Tan Dun in a world premiere.
LSM: Do you see yourself as having a role in promoting Chinese
music in the west?
LL : Absolutely! Since I am
Chinese, I like to do that. That's why I play Tan Dun's music. In 2005, we are
doing a world premiere of his piano concerto with the New York Philharmonic,
conducted by Lorin Maazel.
LSM: What recording plans do you
LL : My Carnegie Hall recital on November 7 will be issued on CD, DVD, and
video documentary. It will have a Haydn sonata, Schumann's Abegg
Variation, Schubert's Wanderer-Fantasie basically German-Austrian
repertoire in the first half. In the second half I have Tan Dun's Eight
Memories in Watercolor a world premiere. I will play a traditional Chinese
piece, Competing Horses, with my father on erhu. Also a Chopin nocturne
and Liszt's Don Giovanni transcriptions the most difficult piece
in piano repertoire. It will be the biggest thing I have done so far.
LSM: I saw you give a masterclass at Euromusic in Toronto last
summer. I was amazed at how good a teacher you are. There was an eleven-year old
boy who played Ginastera's
Danza. You were
so encouraging to him...
LL : He is a very good student.
When you have someone like that, it's much easier to teach. You also get
something from the student. Each student is different and you can't teach the
same way it's not going to work. It depends on personality. Some people are
outgoing while others are much more inside. It's also important for me, to know
what the next generation is like.
LSM: How often do you give masterclasses?
LL : I don't call these
masterclasses I call them chat sessions. In a masterclass you just sit there
and play and talk about the music. I like to do a chat session, to introduce the
reason we are doing these things, the kind of enjoyment we can get from
music...that music can help us have a better life. I think that's more important
than just sitting and talking about the notes. We need to open their minds
beyond imagination, to the connection between the real world and the world of
classical music. I do a lot of chat sessions now at least once every two
weeks. I really enjoy it and I think people get something from it.
LSM: Why do you think there are so many good Asian
LL : They are talented first of
all; they work hard and have discipline. They want to do something good. Before
there weren't so many Asians studying classical music. Now it's more popular in
Asia than in America.
LSM: Is classical music popular in China?
LL : Very popular! It's
unbelievable. Everywhere I go, the audience is so young. Afterwards at the
signings or when I walk in the streets, they respond like I am a pop or movie
star it's really cool! Asian people are very musical. Western people think
Asians are cold; they think we are very reserved. It's totally wrong! Actually
we are very emotional.
LSM: Sometimes people say Asian musicians copy others and that
they are not very original. What do you think?
LL : Maybe. I know lots of Asians
who start by practicing a lot, listening to CDs, and try to make sounds from the
records. (They have) no personality. That's why critics say that. Some pianists
like to copy I don't think it is right. I never copy anyone: I believe in
myself. If you copy someone, you think they are right and you are wrongbut
maybe they are wrong. It's like doing a test and copying wrong answers from the
next table. Musically you need to find your own way. If you see a great
performance and you love it, it gives you energy. That's great. But you cannot
do exactly what this other guy is doing. You have your own thoughts and your own
LSM: On the subject of Chinese musicians have you ever heard
pianist Fou T'song?
LL : I admire him a lot, but I
have never heard him play live or even on recordings, I am sorry to say. But I
met him several times.
LSM: What do you think of Yundi Li's
LL : I never heard him perform
live. I am very happy for him. His career is not big yet. I hope he will have a
big career. We met once in Germany he came to my recital, and we had a nice
talk. If I don't see (someone) live, I cannot make any comment. I think it is
still very rare to become famous. The world has so many pianists. I am very
LSM: What advice
would you give to a piano student?
LL : Just love what you are
doing, and try to play more. If you play the piano, you have to really love to
play, not just have a job. My advice is to study all the time, to develop
repertoire, and to really love music. Just enjoy it!
LSM: What do you do to relax?
LL : I watch movies; I play
ping-pong. I love to watch TV, hanging out with my friends.
LSM: How many hours do you practice a day?
LL : Now it's two hours before
it was a lot!
LSM: You have a very busy schedule...
LL: Yes, it's quite
unbelievable! But when you have opening night at the Proms, at Ravinia with the
Chicago Symphony, closing night with the Berlin Philharmonic, you need to take
it! (laughs). It's a lot, but there are so many pianists who would like to have
this career; they are hungry for it. I have this chance, so I need to be better.