Lang Lang in conversation…

Written by: Colin Anderson

Now in his final year of being a teenager, Lang Lang has been catapulted to stardom. Although America-bound anyway, his last-minute replacing of Andre Watts and Richard Goode for Chicago concerts a couple of years ago brought him wide publicity; he now records for Telarc, and his debut recital CD has been warmly received; I reviewed it for this site.

I spoke to Lang Lang in London the day after he had played at the Proms on 22 August, his London debut (click here to read the review). The Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto he gave with the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Yuri Temirkanov was recorded by Telarc for future release. When I spoke to Lang Lang he had yet to record the solo items by Scriabin that will complete the CD. “It’s the most difficult concerto. I love this piece; I wanted it to be my first recording with orchestra. The piece has everything.”

He was delighted by his debut at the Royal Albert Hall, not fazed at all by its large space or having to play for several thousand people, many standing in the Arena; indeed, he seemed to relish the occasion. His natural style of playing and his effortless technical command have drawn superlatives from many critics. Anticipating his recital in the Wigmore Hall this coming Tuesday, 27 November, with the same programme he has already recorded for his Telarc debut is to savour playing that is undemonstrative and focussed, remarkably mature for a pianist of this age. Refined, subtle and unexaggerated, Lang Lang has tonal power to at his disposal, which he’ll need for Rachmaninov’s passionate Second Sonata. I should, as a rider, and as a reviewer, note my own reservations as to allowing Lang Lang to develop from his current ’prodigy’ status; he needs to be allowed time and space to grow as an interpreter.

His debut CD release [TELARC CD-80524] documents his current recital programme, which is also a live recording. Does he prefer to record live? “It’s more real. For me, it’s more natural to communicate with an audience”. Rachmaninov features on the CD and will dominate his next release, the Third Concerto. Is Lang Lang familiar with Rachmaninov’s own playing? “Yes, of course. He didn’t always play what he wrote, sometimes the complete opposite!” Does this free Lang Lang to play as he feels? “Yes, but you must respect what the composer writes.”

Lang Lang was born in 1982 in Shen Yang, China. He began his piano studies at the age of three at the Music College under Professor Zhu Ya-Fen. At the age of nine he entered the China Central Music Conservatory and subsequently won a number of competitions. In 1997 he was accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he currently studies with Gary Graffman.

Is Lang Lang from a musical family and was his progress as a child prodigy a happy one? “My father plays the erhu, Chinese violin. My parents brought a piano – I touched the piano and I loved it! I had a professional teacher when I was four and won a competition. Then I gave my first public recital. I really wanted to be a world-class performer; I enjoyed it all.”

Lang Lang has had both a traditional and western musical upbringing. He says he had “very good teachers, developed fast and studied much”. Lang Lang also reflects on the “huge interest in classical music in China after the Cultural Revolution,” which had been over for several years when Lang Lang was born. “There was so much music to discover.”

In 1996, Lang Lang played in New York and Boston; his recital programmes included Chopin’s 24 Etudes. Because of his work with Gary Graffman, Lang Lang now lives in the States. Having studied and played so much in his homeland, the invitation to study at the Curtis Institute widened Lang Lang’s experience. What does Gary Graffman, a well-known pianist and recording-artist, bring to Lang Lang’s development? “I now play thirty-five concertos and lots of standard recital repertoire. Graffman has really evolved my repertoire and been very helpful as to what I should play. In China you study with a very good teacher and in America you can get more. Graffman gives me lots of options of how to play pieces … you are making decisions. He’s so flexible, gives me ideas, and keeps everything fresh.

Lang Lang talks about his “lucky breaks,” his replacing of Goode and Watts. He replaced the latter to play the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Christoph Eschenbach and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at a high-profile Gala concert. Despite the ’star’ coverage he is now obtaining, Lang Lang comes across as naturally as his playing – confident, friendly and enthusiastic. Yet, his CD programme includes Haydn and ’late’ Brahms, music that is subtle and reflective, the Brahms worldly-wise and very personal. This is not the sort of music that Lang Lang, or any pianist of his age, might be anticipated as wanting to play. He is though “delighted with the mix of composers” and is obviously insistent that he plays what he wants, not what he should.

For Lang Lang, “learning a score is a natural process – from the score, with analysis … play, play, play until the music seeps into myself”. He likes music “to suggest pictures in my head, stories, like a movie. The Haydn is very playful and delicate; the Rachmaninov brings a huge contrast of emotion.”

Lang Lang’s repertoire is dominated by Classical/Romantic music. When we speak it appears that the most ’modern’ music he plays is Bartok. He tells me that he would like to work with a Chinese composer, perhaps one who lives in America, on a project that would connect Chinese and western musical cultures.

Any suggestion from myself that Lang Lang has been exposed too early, that he is on the world stage while he is still developing, is courteously denied. He does not appear to have set any dates for attaining particular goals, his career will unfold naturally; of course, he always wants to do his best. “I start in Asia when I was thirteen – studying, travelling, studying, travelling. I want to be better and better”. He thinks his schedule of ninety concerts a year is “exciting” and admits to being a big fan of Horowitz, Rubinstein and Rudolf Serkin.

His musical philosophy is that “music itself is very natural, you should play natural and special at the same time”. While I hope he will develop more musical characterisation, perhaps share more of his mental pictures with us, there’s no denying that Lang Lang is a very happy and content young man for whom the music comes first. “Keep studying, keep performing in every capital in the world … and enjoy life!”

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