He has been hailed as the hottest artist in clas­si­cal mu­sic. But be­fore fame, writes Tim Tee­man, Lang Lang had to sur­vive a child­hood where per­fec­tion was de­manded — at all costs

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

IN his Man­hat­tan apart­ment, Cen­tral Park a de­li­cious green and brown au­tum­nal car­pet 36 storeys be­low, su­per­star pi­anist Lang Lang shows me the hand ex­er­cises he em­ploys af­ter pound­ing the keys in con­cert hall af­ter con­cert hall. The 30-year-old Chi­nese mu­si­cian, boy­ish-pretty with jet­ted quiff, stretches his dig­its, rolls his shoul­ders and bends his el­bows. ‘‘ I have a mas­sage once ev­ery two days on tour. Since I was a teenager I wor­ried about in­jur­ing my hands. But you just buy in­surance.’’ He guf­faws. ‘‘ It’s a good psy­cho­log­i­cal way of es­cap­ing the dark­ness of the threat of in­jury.’’

The laugh­ter is de­ceiv­ing. In Jour­ney of a Thou­sand Miles, his 2008 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Lang says in­jur­ing his arms and hands be­came ‘‘ his big­gest fear’’, re­alised in 2003 when he hurt him­self hit­ting the ivory keys of one pi­ano too hard. How much are his hands in­sured for — $1 mil­lion? ‘‘ More than that,’’ Lang says in al­most flu­ent, only slightly bro­ken English. ‘‘ I’ve put more money in over the years ... I think $15m.’’ Does he ever think, ‘‘ My hands are worth $15m’’? ‘‘ Oh, they’re worth more than that. You don’t want to ex­change your health for it. I wouldn’t ex­change $100m for un­healthy hands. I just wouldn’t do it.’’ An­other guf­faw. ‘‘ No amount of in­surance matches the value of my hands.’’

Lang doesn’t say this ar­ro­gantly; he sim­ply, pas­sion­ately loves the pi­ano and mak­ing mu­sic. Hailed as ‘‘ the hottest artist on the clas­si­cal mu­sic planet’’ by The New York Times, this mod­est mu­si­cian signed to Sony Mu­sic for a re­ported $3m two years ago. His CDs — the lat­est, The Chopin Al­bum, in­cludes a piece he first per­formed aged 5 — sell in the hun­dreds of thou­sands.

He played at the open­ing of the Bei­jing Olympics in 2008 and at the Queen’s di­a­mond ju­bilee con­cert in Lon­don in June.

There have been Lang Lang-branded pi­anos (cre­ated by Stein­way), scarfs and train­ers. His ap­pear­ances at con­cert halls across the world at­tract adu­la­tory fans — ‘‘ I can feel their pas­sion,’’ he says — and although crit­ics have carped, Lang of­ten plays the show­man, stand­ing at the pi­ano. He’s qui­eter in per­son, courtly even: be­fore ev­ery con­cert he eats fruit, a roast beef sand­wich and drinks earl grey or chamomile tea. ‘‘ I have never got­ten drunk in my life,’’ he says. ‘‘ I would much rather play sports or go on a date than get drunk. I don’t have a prob­lem with it; I just don’t touch it.’’

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