I THINK THE BEST THING IS TO PLAY EVERY CONCERT AS IF IT’S YOUR FIRST LANG LANG
pianist for the Chicago Symphony. Orchestras from New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland asked him to play with them. Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim became his mentor. He told Lang: ‘‘ We should not just learn music from our life experience but also learn life experience through music. In this way, no matter how old you are, you can play something incredible.’’
Lang remembers his first time in a five-star hotel. ‘‘ I was so excited about the mini-bar, swimming pool, room service — ‘ Wow, touring is cool,’ I thought.’’ But he once wrote he had ‘‘ to wonder what’s out there beyond the luxury hotels and restaurants. I can never forget where I came from — the poverty, the loneliness.’’
‘‘ It was challenging,’’ Lang says of youthful fame. ‘‘ People have high expectations. They say, ‘ He’ll grow up and won’t play as well. Is he still going to be this good in two years?’ Today, everyone is questioning whether Justin Bieber will go far after he’s 20. For me it was annoying: I just focused on the art. Advice is great sometimes, but it can be harmful: you must not forget what you’re doing. You mustn’t think about stardom.’’
Still, he was ‘‘ heavily influenced’’ by popular culture, amazed by large numbers of people knowing who Michael Jordan was. ‘‘ You could go to any pharmacy or store and see their connection to the public. With classical music you have to go to a special section of the store to find our music. I learned from Yo-Yo Ma [the American cellist], whose CDs are sometimes in Starbucks, how to promote myself.
‘‘ But it’s also very challenging because you have to behave properly at all times. When I’m followed by paparazzi, or when people take my photograph outside a hotel or restaurant, it feels unnatural.’’
But Lang hopes his youth and style help free classical music from its perceived ghetto. ‘‘ I believe great art should be shared with everyone. Maybe Beethoven was paid by the king, but he wanted his pieces to be heard by everyone. ‘ Let’s stay in our little club’ is not the right kind of promotion for classical music.’’
As for the flamboyance: ‘‘ I do it when the piece demands it, but it is only one part of my playing. You don’t need to be approved of by people, just play and be sincere.’’ From the ‘‘ I must win’’ of his youth, his attitude now is: ‘‘ No 1: that’s stupid, just do your art. I am still developing.’’ He once wrote that depression had stalked him, ‘‘ looming over me since my professional career took off. I’d felt constantly unmoored, always completely alone in spite of the crowds that clamoured for my attention.’’ He feels more secure now. ‘‘ You can be one of the best only when you are doing your best. A big ego will lead you to play wrong notes.’’ He laughs. ‘‘ I think the best thing is to play every concert as if it’s your first.’’
Has Lang ever been starstruck? Yes, he nods: Lionel Messi, the Argentinian footballer, at Wimbledon one year, ‘‘ and world leaders. I enjoyed my conversation with Mr George Bush Sr. It was very meaningful: he believed, as I do, music education needs to be improved. I thought that was very sweet.’’
After the diamond jubilee concert, the Queen said, ‘‘ ‘ Your fingers are moving so fast.’ I was like, ‘ Yes, that’s practice.’ She said, ‘ Keep it going.’ ’’ At another concert, Sasha and Malia Obama ‘‘ asked the Jonas Brothers how to sing and me how to prepare [for] a recital. I told them, ‘ Take a nap, eat some strawberries and, if you like to eat sweeter stuff, chocolate.’ For me, the most incredible experiences are not state dinners — it was when I was 21, playing for a village in Africa where they got me a keyboard, not a piano, singing local songs with the kids.’’
In the testiest moment between us, Lang will not state whether he supports Ai Weiwei, the artist and activist who has been detained by the Chinese authorities.
‘‘ I try to avoid political things,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m not afraid of saying something wrong. I think my goal as a musician is to create art. I don’t know him as a person.’’ Lang claims, ‘‘ Artists always have the freedom to express themselves,’’ which might come as surprising news to Ai. ‘‘ You create art, you can explain this in millions of ways. I don’t think political things can stop artistic creation.’’
Lang hopes ‘‘ the world better understands China’’ through its art. Is China friendly to artists? ‘‘ Very. For the people I know. I can’t speak for every artist, of course. I’ve got a good space [for his school].’’ If the government gives other artists space, ‘‘ They just create art. It’s not pro-China or anti-China. People are creating amazing things in China, political or not.’’ Is Lang worried about Ai, his treatment, what it means? ‘‘ Making music is my world. I have no interest in politics.’’
Next, Lang will do a recording of Bartok concertos with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. He is inspired by pianists such as Glenn Gould, Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz and contemporary musicians Joshua Bell, Gustavo Dudamel and Valery Gergiev. ‘‘ I like Adele very much,’’ he adds. ‘‘ When she sings she has this real quality. I went to a Lady Gaga concert: it was fun, a lot of revolutionary ideas. From man-world, everything Jay-Z touches is unique.’’ Paul McCartney, whom Lang has met three times, said to him, ‘‘ You’re a classical pianist, I’m a classic rocker.’’ Lang wants to work with McCartney and Adele. Elton John is a friend; the pair are discussing a collaboration, ‘‘ a totally new song’’.
Does Lang want children? ‘‘ This type of schedule means it’s not possible, I’m focused more on music. I would like children in 10 years’ time. That’s the plan, but you never know.’’ Is he in a relationship? ‘‘ I’m going on a date tonight. Every time I come home I try to have as much time for myself to have a relationship. I don’t have a steady girlfriend. It would be nice to find someone, but it’s nice to make friends first.’’ Has he been in love? ‘‘ Yes, during school when I was 17. You have more time then, you see that person all the time. But then the touring started. I think love is very important, it’s one of the most important things in life.’’
His mother lives nearby and is his travelling companion, while he and his father video-chat every day. His father is coaching young musicians in Beijing. Lang thinks age has softened him. (He says, laughing: ‘‘ I would like him to be more energetic.’’) Has his father said sorry for what happened when Lang was a child? ‘‘ No, it’s very oriental. You know you’re wrong, but it’s hard to say sorry. He will not say it in front of me. Maybe to the public he will because he feels bad. He feels he loves me so much he doesn’t need to say sorry.’’ Would Lang like him to? ‘‘ No. My father showed he cared about me. He was being very protective, though he made mistakes. We are all human beings. It wasn’t as if he was drunk every day and hitting me. He wanted his kid to have a wonderful future. I don’t need him to say he’s sorry for that. We all know he felt bad: that’s good enough.’’
Lang retains the ‘‘ spiritual discipline’’ of his childhood, ‘‘ but I’m an adult now’’, so on nonconcert days he shops, eats out and plays football with friends in Central Park with a Manchester United football. ‘‘ My English team, from when Beckham played. I think [Wayne] Rooney is amazing.’’
He has become addicted to the gym. ‘‘ I go every day. If you’re a pianist you spend your time sitting down. You need to exercise your legs.’’ Lang practises for two hours a day on the piano that stands in the windowed apex of his apartment. ‘‘ I am a pianist and will remain a pianist and to remain as one is a lot of hard work,’’ he says. Unlike in your youth, there’s no neighbour telling you to shut up, I say. Lang replies: ‘‘ There have been complaints. I am not allowed to play after 11pm.’’
Superstar or not, disturb your New York neighbours at your peril.
Lang Lang brings a flamboyant rock-star style to classical piano