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Lang Lang: A life so far

Lang-Lang-Great-Wall

Anyone who believed that Lang's Lang's fame would only last fifteen minutes would have had to think twice when they saw the audience at New York's Town Hall on October 20, 2008

It sometimes seems that everyone in the world knows about Lang Lang. He was the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics. He performed at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics, viewed by more than two billion people worldwide. He won a Golden Globe nomination and appeared at the 50th annual Grammy Awards ceremony. He's planning a tour with jazz great Herbie Hancock in the summer of 2009 that will include improvisation. It was surely no exaggeration when The New York Times described him as "the hottest artist on the classical music planet." 

The story about his charitable and educational activities is, to some, less familiar. Lang Lang was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF in 2004, the youngest in the history of that organization. Lang Lang raised $3.4 million in aid to the Red Cross for victims of the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. The Steinway company has launched a special Lang Lang piano in China, specially designed to encourage music study in young people. Proceeds from the auction of the first Lang Lang piano went to benefit UNICEF's programs for young people affected by AIDS in China's Yunan Province. 

I first saw Lang Lang the teacher during an earlier charitable benefit in Town Hall. The program included a duet between Lang Lang and his father, Lang Guoren, a distinguished performer on the erhu, a two-stringed instrument sometimes called "the Chinese violin." Several pre-college pianists performed and then had a brief lesson with Lang Lang before a sold-out audience. They were not all prodigies, by any means—but it was fascinating to watch nonetheless. I was impressed both with Lang Lang's kindness and his prescient comments. It was almost as if he had been teaching for all of his life. 

I asked him about this when we met in Los Angeles, before another sold-out concert at UCLA's Royce Hall.

Many distinguished artists become involved in education later in their careers, when they are not touring so much. But for you, it has been an interest right from the beginning.

Well, first of all, I really enjoy teaching. I learn a lot from other musicians and from students. Sometimes they are not what you expect. But it doesn't matter. You can still learn from other people. I believe that, no matter how old you are, or at what stage in your career, you have to think about building young audiences. By collaborating with those young kids, it gives me a good idea about what they are thinking and how they develop. It's important to have a close connection between musicians and people who want to become musicians, or even those who just need to learn a little bit about music. Music is all about inspiration. I have been very lucky to be inspired by so many great colleagues. I want to give back to the younger kids who need positive motivation. I know about the difference between an inspirational teacher and a non-inspirational teacher. It makes such a big deal!

You speak in your book, Journey of a Thousand Miles (Spiegel & Grau, 2008) about a teacher you called Professor Angry.

That was horrible. But a good teacher can open the door to music—it opens your heart and you look at the same thing in a different view. In life, we need this. Sometimes, it can be only a small detail, something very subtle that opens you up.

I know competition, and piano competitions, were a very important part of your education
in China. And then that changed when you came to the US, to study with Gary Graffman at Curtis. How do you feel about competitions now?


When I was a kid, I didn't really know what I would get when I got first place. I just thought, now I am first! But it's a very short goal. I didn't think too much. 

Mr. Graffman was not 100% anti-competition. He said, "if you cannot have a career after four years of working really hard with me, then we might consider you going to a competition." But he believed that I had a chance to skip that step. This was new to me--I was 14, and had been doing what seemed like a competition every day before then. 

I was too competitive, and he thought that it would be difficult to grow and mature if I continued focusing only on competitions. He wanted to cut me down and really learn things in depth, musically. This had not always been my thinking. I learned the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto before the Second because I heard that it is more difficult.

What was Mr. Graffman like as a teacher?

The great thing about Gary is that he has no reservations about any composer. Some teachers might say, this style is not for me. But he is open to all the masters from Bach to Bartok. It gave me great joy to learn different repertoire, different styles, and a different approach to thinking about music. But all very precise and detailed. 

Gary was always easy to work with, generous and kind to me. He's a very pleasant man.

Lang Lang (age 13) performs with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra at the 1995 Tchaikovsky Competition.

Did Mr. Graffman influence your choice of repertoire?

I learned many, many pieces when I studied with him, but not necessarily to play in concert. In my public appearances, I playa little bit of German music but mainly Russian. Russia and China have been very close and have many things in common. Many revolutions! So Russian music is not hard for a Chinese person to understand. When I was a boy I listened to lots of Russian music. Not just piano—lots of symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. Perhaps because of this, I respond to pieces with strong emotions, lots of color, and beautiful melodies.

This was good in the beginning. When you are young playing this kind of repertoire, audiences like it. If you have a special interpretation, it is a way to get popular, in a good way. But the backlash comes very fast. People think you are only a virtuoso. 

So I am moving more into the Germanic repertoire. I worked with Gary on the early Beethoven sonatas and Beethoven's Concerto No.4. This concerto was a big change for me. It is so introverted compared to the pieces that I had played in China. It helped me understand Beethoven and play with a new style.

I have worked with [Daniel] Barenboim on the Beethoven and Brahms concerti and [Christoph] Eschenbach on Schubert and Mozart. These are two huge influences on me, Eschenbach and Barenboim. I've learned a lot through them, and my repertoire has expanded. Also into Spanish and French styles.

You said somewhere that Eschenbach reminded you at first of Yul Brynner playing the King in the musical The King and I.

[laughing] He did! Very dignified and noble. He originally gave me tweny minutes to play for him at Ravinia, in the summer just after I turned seventeen. It wasn't much time. I had been playing a few concerts and auditioning for other orchestras (many of them in smaller centers), but I was often told that I was too young or too unknown to be booked. So I jumped at the chance. It was my dream to play with the Chicago Symphony. 

I started with a Haydn Sonata. I was so nervous I played much too quickly! Then I played Brahms. Maestro's [Eschenbach] eyes became very excited—he has very beautiful and expressive eyes. He kept saying "play more, play more!" I played Scriabin, Mozart, Liszt, Beethoven. It turned into a two-hour audition, my Chicago recital debut! [laughing].

I returned to Philadelphia, very happy and hoping that something would come in a future season. But I got a call the next day. Andre Watts was sick and had to cancel an important gala concert. I was asked to fill in. That is how it all began. 

Maestro Eschenbach has become a mentor to me—a second father and a close friend. He has inspired me to free myself and connect with the piano spiritually.

How do you choose pieces?

You cannot always seek repertoire that only fits your personality. Classical music is like the whole world—there are pieces that are introverted, extroverted, percussive, or expressive. If it doesn't fit your personality, you need to learn. I think a Beethoven slow movement does not fit anybody's personality today, we are living in such a fast paced world. Beethoven's Concerto No. 4 is the same thing—it is very different than our life experience today. 

I like to have a big range of repertoire. Every year is slightly different. One year I will focus on Eastern European pieces, and then the next year maybe works from the central European tradition. I focus on four composers each season. This year it is Chopin, Debussy, Bart6k, and Schubert. Next year will be Beethoven, Albeniz, and Prokofiev—with one other to be added.

I've heard you tell young students that the amount of practice depends on your age. If you
are five, you should practice five hours. Ten—ten hours!

[laughing] That was my life! Well, maybe not quite that bad. But now I cannot practice that much with my travel schedule and other responsibilities. I draw on the repertoire that I learned with Gary at Curtis—maybe not then to a completely polished state, but enough that I have a memory of the piece. One good thing about me is that I do not need to practice pieces that I am currently performing. For example, the program tomorrow [his concert at UCLA] doesn't need work. I will practice the program for next year.

Do you have technical regimen you do on a regular basis?

The important thing is to practice lots of scales, very evenly. This is the way to start the morning! You can improve your technic in pieces this way. I play portions of pieces—Goldberg Variations, cadenzas from Beethoven concerti. I check the basic stuff—tonal evenness, making sure all the notes of the chords are sounding.

Do you get nervous before you play?

I wouldn't say nervous. I love being onstage, actually more than being by myself. If I am playing a new piece, I am maybe not so sure. By the third performance, it's not a problem. I just enjoy it.

Your imagination for tonal color is a big part of your playing

Well, I listened to a lot of string music. We always talked about symphonic stuff in my lessons at Curtis. Gary would say, "think of the brass section in the Chicago Symphony." Or, "imagine the Philadelphia string sound." This inspired my imagination. When I was in China, I did not get a chance to listen to very many American orchestras. Pianists, yes—Artur Rubenstein, of course, always my favorite, and people like Martha Argerich and Horowitz. But here you can hear so many great orchestras.

In your book, you describe the grueling practice and competition schedule that your dad set for you as a boy. But you also make it clear that you also shared the drive to be the best. How would you advise a young student today about the best way to build a career?

To me, being number one means I want to be my best. After a certain time, you realize that being number one in a competition or at school is only conditional—there are other number ones at other places and times. So it has more to do with my own standards and thoughts. 

Everyone has a different path to success. This was my way—lots of hard work as a child, but then no competitions as an adult. It worked for me, and for others like Barenboim and Graffman. But other people do well in the Cliburn or Tchaikovsky competition and that success launches their career. Ashkenazy, for instance.

If you do not win competitions, do not get too disappointed. And don't be too happy if you do win! You still need to be focused on the music.

Lang Lang was the first pianist to perform the Yellow River Concerto at China's Yellow River.

Tell me about the Lang Lang Foundation. You are doing auditions on YouTube.

Our first mission is to find really exceptional talent at a young age, from five to twelve. But we will consider some outstanding teenagers. We will listen to anyone young who is really great! And we want to improve the educational environment, cooperating with other organizations like Carnegie Hall. They will provide great teachers and a nice platform to perform. I want to work with as many great teachers as possible to expand.

The second area is to work with other musicians to create a music program in the public schools. We want to inspire the kids in a normal school. This may turn out to be the most important part, to create an interesting project for kids in school to experience classical music and learn to love it. It will be very challenging, and very necessary. 

The third area is to raise money for humanitarian causes.

Like you do in your work for UNICEF

Exactly. But I like to have my own organization behind me. It can magnify my efforts beyond just one or two concerts.

In China, it seems like the younger audience for classical music is already there.

There are something like twenty million kids studying piano in China. There is music education in every public school. To Chinese, Western classical music is a new art, not part of tradition like it is in the West. Many Western operas have never been seen in China. There are still many people who are hearing Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 for the first time.

It will be interesting to see how future generations of Chinese people respond to classical music.

Yes. Now, it is like it used to be in the U.S. one hundred years ago—every family wants to have a piano and study music. 

But even there, we cannot be content just to survive. We need to expand the world for serious music.

I have been listening to you perform since early in your career. I think your playing has changed quite a bit. Do you think that this is part of your personal growth as a human being?

You are right! But it has nothing to do with "human being." I think it is more about listening and learning, through study and onstage performance. I talk to many people and get many ideas about more convincing interpretations.

I do not think I was mature at the beginning of my career. Now I think better. I know how to control the volume and the speed. It makes you much more involved in your creative mind. This is something that I learn for myself, onstage. It is a challenge to keep performances creative and fresh at all times. This is my goal.

Do you listen to a lot of CDs?

You have to be very selective. You cannot listen to everything. The danger is that you pick this from one person, something else from another and then you become a sort of producer instead of a pianist. For Chopin, I always go for Rubenstein. Not so many others, only one or two. You don't want to lose your own imagination.

It was imagination that got you interested in the piano in the first place, wasn't it? The Tom and Jerry cartoon built around Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2?

Yes, and later the Bugs Bunny cartoon about the same piece, which he plays with his ears! I also liked a Chinese cartoon called the Monkey King. He can transform himself into anything. This for me, is music —the ability to transform and express. I also like Transformers!

Your visual imagination as a child was very strong. Is it the same now that you are adult?

When I look at a great painting, it is the same. Recently I have been studying Rubens. The first one I was really crazy about was Monet and then van Gogh. This inspires me a lot. Reading, too, in a different way. I find the visual helps me get into the mood. Reading develops my own imagination.

My own young students really notice your unconventional and stylish concert attire. How
do you go about choosing your outfits?

When I was a kid, I had no money to buy clothes. I was a student, so I looked like a student. Now, I am interested to look into new stuff. These are things I like and just pick up—I do not have my own designer. To have interesting outfits is kind of encouraging—it changes your mood. I am pretty sure that everyone is happy after they go shopping. No matter how serious you are!

You are the youngest UNICEF Ambassador. How did that come about?

There is another UNICEF Ambassador from the world of classical music, the violinist Maxim Vengerov. I look up to him very much. This gave me the idea. And then a very good friend of mine, who works at the United Nations, came to my concert in 2004 and encouraged me to become involved with UNICEF. 

I have a very good ability to communicate with kids. They seem to get really excited when they see me. It is not hard to do and I like to work with them. When I go to a poor country, where the kids do not have too many opportunities, I feel that I am bringing hope.

I don't forget where I came from, how poor the people were and how lonely their lives can be. When I went to Tanzania, I heard similar stories. I saw a play that the children wrote about AIDS and could see that some of the kids acting in the play were already suffering from it. This was very touching to me. I remember my own dark times and can feel theirs. I want to help. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, told me before I left, "Lang Lang, your responsibility as an artist goes beyond music. You must serve people and peace." 

If you could say one thing to piano teachers, what would it be?

I hope every student comes away from lessons excited to learn. Every student is different and needs a different approach. If you inspire them to love music, even a little bit, you have accomplished a lot. 

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