HIS FIERCE FA­THER EN­COUR­AGED LANG, THEN NINE, TO COM­MIT SUI­CIDE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

Lang’s apart­ment is glossy: floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows, TV span­ning one wall, a let­ter from Tchaikovsky given as an 18th birth­day gift on an­other. He is ‘‘ mov­ing away from com­mer­cial brand­ing to ed­u­ca­tion, I want to give back to so­ci­ety’’, run­ning the Lang Lang In­ter­na­tional Mu­sic Foun­da­tion to en­cour­age young mu­si­cians and the Lang Lang Mu­sic World arts school in China, where he is said to have in­spired 40 mil­lion chil­dren to take up the pi­ano. (‘‘I ask chil­dren why they are play­ing and it seems more for love than be­cause their par­ents have told them to.’’) His school has 85 stu­dents and is in the city of Shen­zhen, ‘‘ known as Pi­ano City, there are so many chil­dren learn­ing it’’.

If on stage Lang plays the rock star, in per­son this is muted to a pup­py­ish en­thu­si­asm, a light­ness con­trast­ing starkly with his up­bring­ing in Shenyang, north­ern China, where his par­ents bought his first pi­ano when he was one. The young Lang was in­spired by Liszt’s Hun­gar­ian Rhap­sody No 2, which he heard on a Tom and Jerry car­toon. While his mother, Xi­u­lan Zhou, was a calm, lov­ing pres­ence to whom Lang felt very close, Lang Guoren, his fa­ther, was so fix­ated on him be­ing the best he moved him­self and Lang to Bei­jing, where one sneer­ing teacher whom Lang nick­named Pro­fes­sor An­gry al­most crushed his spirit. (‘‘I teach kids dif­fer­ently; I’m very clear but not harsh — I wouldn’t want them to go through what I did.’’)

Neigh­bours com­plained about the din of Lang’s end­less prac­tis­ing. His fierce fa­ther was once so fu­ri­ous at what he per­ceived as his son’s lack of com­mit­ment that he en­cour­aged Lang, then nine, to com­mit sui­cide by tak­ing an over­dose of pills, then — when his son re­fused — told him to jump out of their apart­ment win­dow. In Lang’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, he re­calls beg­ging his fa­ther: ‘‘ Stop! You’re crazy! Leave me alone! I don’t want to die! I’m not go­ing to die!’’ ‘‘ You must play per­fect,’’ his dad would say. ‘‘ You must not make a mis­take. Not one mis­take.’’ (When, later, Lang in­jured his hand it was a strange re­lief: he caught up with friends and re­laxed.)

In China, Lang’s fa­ther re­cently pub­lished his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, My Thirty Years with Lang Lang. ‘‘ I cried many times read­ing it, I really did,’’ con­fesses his son. ‘‘ It was very emo­tional. He ex­plains why he was so iron-faced: it’s very ori­en­tal — the fa­ther is strict be­cause oth­er­wise the boy will not lis­ten. He felt he had to be strict in or­der for me to achieve ex­cep­tional success. He will never for­give him­self for some things. He doesn’t want to talk about the moment he tried to make me com­mit sui­cide. He says that’s prob­a­bly his big­gest mis­take. He feels in­cred­i­ble pain when peo­ple ask about it. He made a wrong de­ci­sion. I made a right de­ci­sion not to lis­ten to him.’’

What if he had lis­tened to him? ‘‘ My fa­ther would have jumped from the build­ing too, I think,’’ Lang says quickly. ‘‘ He’s not go­ing to let just me die. That’s what I be­lieve. Thank god it didn’t hap­pen.’’ Af­ter­wards Lang hit his hands re­peat­edly against a wall, ‘‘ be­cause I didn’t want to play any more. I hated it. I al­ways wanted to be a pi­anist, but it wasn’t like af­ter pi­ano there was noth­ing else. I was pretty good at my other stud­ies.’’

Was his fa­ther too hard on him? ‘‘ I’d say there were some mo­ments [when] it was un­nec­es­sary be­cause I was not the type of per­son who hated the pi­ano. I loved it. I didn’t need the pres­sure. I think he was scared I would not achieve in my ca­reer like he hadn’t in his — that was the shadow.’’

His fa­ther played the erhu, a tra­di­tional Chi­nese two-string fid­dle, ‘‘ and he was very good in his re­gion, but it was a Chi­nese in­stru­ment so not many peo­ple would have lis­tened to him’’. The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, which forced so many artists and mu­si­cians away from their crafts, also helped scup­per his fa­ther’s dream. ‘‘ He flashed back to that when bring­ing me up. He didn’t want what hap­pened to him to hap­pen to me.’’

Also, Lang adds: ‘‘ Ar­tis­ti­cally you need to be pushed so you can achieve. My fa­ther is an ed­u­ca­tor, he has a heart and he en­cour­ages and chal­lenges me to do bet­ter all the time.’’

Lang gained en­trance to the Bei­jing Cen­tral Mu­sic Con­ser­va­tory, won com­pe­ti­tions, then stud­ied at the pres­ti­gious Cur­tis In­sti­tute of Mu­sic in Philadel­phia. His break came at 17 when he was asked to stand in for an­other

As a child Lang Lang hated the pi­ano and tried to in­jure his hands

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