THE PIANO MAN
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
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.’’