Lang Lang, the man with the $20 mil­lion hands

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Lang Lang’s en­ergy is a for­mi­da­ble thing. Clas­si­cal mu­sic’s $US20 mil­lion man is speak­ing to Re­view just be­fore mid­night, fresh from a three-hour concert recital in Frank­furt’s Alte Oper, but de­spite the late hour and marathon per­for­mance, he is all spark and snap.

Tired? Not the Chi­nese key­board vir­tu­oso, who played gamely through a food poi­son­ing at­tack in Mu­nich the week be­fore. “If I am hun­gry, angry, tired, I still play the same. Once on stage, I for­get ev­ery­thing and some­how just go into the mu­sic world — even last week, when I ate some­thing wrong and my stom­ach was all over rum­bling, ha ha!”

You can’t help but laugh in re­turn. Lang Lang, 33, comes across like an agree­able child (fit­tingly his name is de­rived from the Chi­nese char­ac­ter for “bright­ness and sun­shine”). He speaks in long, singsong sen­tences, his gut­tural na­tive Shenyang ac­cent mixed with a strain of east coast Amer­i­can, cross­ing from crit­ics, com­merce and cul­tural bar­ri­ers to how the pi­ano is like a drug ad­dic­tion: “Af­ter three days off, I feel like some­thing is wrong with the world.”

Se­ri­ous mu­si­cian or gim­micky wannabe? That is the enigma of Lang Lang — China’s first crossover clas­si­cal su­per­star pi­anist, for­mer child prodigy and one of the world’s high­est­paid, busiest and ar­guably most di­vi­sive concert pi­anists. He has blazed trails since emerg­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally at 17 with a siz­zling ren­di­tion of Tchaikovsky’s Pi­ano Con­certo No 1 at the Ravinia mu­sic festival, blow­ing away the likes of Isaac Stern and Christoph Eschen­bach. He has played for pres­i­dents and dic­ta­tors, on the Great Wall of China, at Buck­ing­ham Palace and in the White House, and to a tele­vi­sion au­di­ence of two bil­lion dur­ing the 2008 Olympics in Bei­jing; he has played at the Grammys, fea­tured in Time mag­a­zine’s list of 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple and is said to have in­spired 40 mil­lion Chi­nese chil­dren to start play­ing the pi­ano in what has been dubbed the “Lang Lang ef­fect”.

It has been a rise pro­pelled by un­de­ni­able tal­ent (his fans range from Daniel Baren­boim to Si­mon Rat­tle) cou­pled with a highly bank­able rock star im­age — think sil­ver sneak­ers, glitzy Ver­sace suits, spiked hair — and truck­loads of charisma.

Too much charisma, per­haps, claim his crit­ics, who groan over some of his more flam­boy­ant per­for­mance tics: think tai chi moves be­tween move­ments, eyes rolling sen­ti­men­tally heav­en­wards, the sly flirt­ing with the front row like a boy band star, the quirky YouTube per­for­mances in­volv­ing or­anges and kung fu moves, get­ting all teary at the end of Liszt’s tran­scrip­tion of the Liebestod from Tris­tan und Isolde. They’ve earned him with­er­ing de­scrip­tors like “Bang Bang” and “J.Lo of the pi­ano”, but lit­tle mat­ter: the young mu­si­cian has laughed all the way to the bank, build­ing a minia­ture com­mer­cial em­pire — let’s call it Lang Lang Inc — through deals and en­dorse­ments rang­ing from Sony (he is the global brand am­bas­sador) to Adi­das, Audi and Mont Blanc.

In 2007, Stein­way re­leased a pi­ano model named af­ter him, the first time in its 150-yearold his­tory that it has done so in hon­our of a sin­gle artist. So valu­able is his im­age that his lawyers have sought to trade­mark his name; even his sig­na­ture, in the curvy shape of a pi­ano, is re­port­edly pro­tected by Chi­nese law.

Tonight’s pro­gram in Frank­furt will be repli­cated in one of three con­certs he will do with the Syd­ney Sym­phony next month (he will also per­form one concert with the Queens­land Sym­phony Orches­tra in Bris­bane). “I am bring­ing to Aus­tralia what I just played tonight, the Bach, you know, Tchaikovsky’s The Sea­sons, the four Chopin scherzi” — he rolls the “Chopin” around his tongue like a tasty treat.

“I am very ex­cited. It’s been a long time, you know. Maybe four years, five years. Some­thing like that.”

It’s a won­der he can keep track. Life is a re­lent­less whirl of up to 150 concert en­gage­ments a year for the mu­si­cian The New York Times her­alded as the “hottest artist on the clas­si­cal mu­sic planet”. The week af­ter we speak, he was to per­form along­side his role model, cel­list Yo-Yo Ma, for the first time (“so ex­cit­ing!”) in a celebrity-stud­ded ben­e­fit gala mark­ing 125 years since the open­ing of Carnegie Hall; he says ex­cit­edly he’s also do­ing a new stu­dio record­ing for Sony Clas­si­cal of Bern­stein, Gersh­win and Co­p­land clas­sics.

Born in Shenyang on June 14, 1982 as the only child of po­lice­man and for­mer erhu mu­si­cian Lang Guoren and tele­phon­ist mother Zhou Xi­u­lan, Lang Lang fa­mously dis­cov­ered the pi­ano at age two af­ter hear­ing Lizst’s Hun­gar­ian Rhap­sody in the clas­sic Tom and Jerry car­toon The Cat Con­certo. He started les­sons at age three and at five won a lo­cal com­pe­ti­tion, stand­ing up so he could reach the ped­als. In 1991, aged nine, he and his fa­ther moved to Bei­jing with hopes of gain­ing en­try to the Cen­tral Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic. They lived in a one-bed­room slum flat filled with rats that ate his mu­sic scores; along­side the crip­pling cold and poverty, there was also the crush­ing pres­sure of his fa­ther’s fe­ro­cious am­bi­tions for him.

In a har­row­ing in­ci­dent re­counted in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Jour­ney of a Thou­sand Miles, his fa­ther be­came so en­raged one day about his per­ceived lack of progress that he threw a bot­tle of an­tibi­otic pills at him, en­cour­ag­ing him to com­mit sui­cide (“Ev­ery­thing will be over and you will be dead!”). He then dragged him out­side and told him to jump. The abuse only stopped when Lang Lang, hys­ter­i­cal, started punch­ing a wall so hard his hands be­gan to bleed. “I hate my hands, I hate the pi­ano, I hate you,” he screamed at his fa­ther.

How is his re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther now? He is re­flec­tive. “We don’t of­ten talk about it but of course, as a hu­man be­ing, you don’t for­get things eas­ily. Some­times there are not very pleas­ant mem­o­ries. But we have a very close re­la­tion­ship. My fa­ther is get­ting into his 60s, and I think when you are 60 you get more calmed down. We need to learn how to for­get. I think my fa­ther had been re­ally only try­ing to help, al­though some­times his way of do­ing things was strange. Ha! But he worked so hard for me and wanted the best for me.”

At 10, in 1991, he was ac­cepted into the Cen­tral Con­ser­va­tory and made rapid progress. He won first prize in the In­ter­na­tional Tchaikovsky Com­pe­ti­tion for Young Mu­si­cians in Ja­pan at 13; at 15 he be­gan stud­ies at the Cur­tis In­sti­tute of Mu­sic in Philadel­phia un­der Gary Graffman. At 17 came that fa­mous Ravinia Festival de­but when he stepped in at the last minute for an in­jured Andre Watts. In 2001, he made his Carnegie Hall de­but and has since gone on to per­form and record with all the world’s great or­ches­tras un­der the ba­ton of con­duc­tors rang­ing from Zu­bin Mehta to Valery Gergiev.

He re­cently ful­filled a life­long dream of play­ing in the Hall of Mir­rors at the Palace of Versailles out­side Paris, and was ap­pointed its first ever am­bas­sador (“So very mag­i­cal ... I will re­turn next sum­mer for con­certs”).

A lover of col­lab­o­ra­tions — he has worked with ev­ery­one from good mate Her­bie Han­cock (“he taught me to im­pro­vise; be­fore, I was ner­vous”) to Jonas Kauf­mann, from dub­step per­former Mar­quese Scott to the Aus­tralian artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Hous­ton Bal­let, Stan­ton Welch (Lang Lang, who played live against 16 dancers in the Chopin Dance Project, chuck­les as he re-

calls how they gamely tried to keep up with the quick­fire com­poser’s mu­sic: “If they try to, it will kill them!”). He also pays homage to his­toric greats such as Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Ru­bin­stein and con­tem­po­rary men­tors like Baren­boim (“he taught me about the psy­cho­log­i­cal power of play­ing the pi­ano, not just the tech­nique”) and the late Niko­laus Harnon­court.

Asked about the cul­tural bar­ri­ers faced by Chi­nese pi­anists, he says he ini­tially found it dif­fi­cult to get to grips with West­ern and cen­tral Euro­pean com­posers such as Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart, find­ing a greater affin­ity with east­ern Euro­peans like Liszt, Chopin, Rach­mani­noff and oth­ers, “per­haps be­cause of the Rus­sian and Chi­nese con­nec­tion”. Bar­ri­ers dis­ap­pear once the stu­dent has wider ex­po­sure in the West, he says.

What about the per­cep­tion that Chi­nese clas­si­cal mu­sic’s rigid train­ing sys­tem is pro­duc­ing gen­er­a­tions of vir­tu­osos with stel­lar tech­nique but no soul. Is that a fair claim? A hint of steel emerges. “Of course it’s not fair! Ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent; we are not like ma­chines ... It’s not like be­cause we are Chi­nese, we do ev­ery­thing the same way.” He hopes clas­si­cal mu­sic’s in­creas­ingly glob­alised cul­ture will help to cor­rect this “mis­un­der­stand­ing” by al­low­ing young Chi­nese mu­si­cians to play on the world stage and “prove things — hope­fully peo­ple will change their mind”.

It’s struck a raw chord, it seems, and un­der­stand­ably so, given the crit­i­cal sav­aging he has copped for more than a decade. No one is in doubt about his tech­ni­cal vir­tu­os­ity — speak­ing of his ren­di­tion of Bar­tok’s Pi­ano Con­certo No 2, which he recorded with the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic Orches­tra, con­duc­tor Rat­tle said: “I know of no other pi­anist who is able to be more sheerly, un­can­nily ac­cu­rate in this piece and then still have the tech­ni­cal abil­ity in re­serve to make it dance, make it phrase.” Baren­boim has de­scribed him as “ex­traor­di­nar­ily tal­ented”.

But there are, equally, many who ques­tion his mu­si­cian­ship; a par­tic­u­larly irate John Al­li­son wrote last year in Bri­tain’s The Tele

graph that “for crimes against its na­tional com­poser [Chopin], Poland re­ally ought to lock him up and toss the key into the Vis­tula”. Ouch! Is this fair? “Of course some­times I dis­agree, but what can I do?” He sus­pects that peo­ple of­ten get the wrong im­pres­sion by watch­ing him on tele­vi­sion — “they watch it for five min­utes and think, ‘ Oh, that shows how he plays.’ [TV pro­duc­ers] want me to play fast. But in the real world, in a two-hour recital, I think that’s the best way to prove whether you are just a flashy show­man or a se­ri­ous mu­si­cian, and for me, I take my two-hour recital very se­ri­ously.”

One critic says Lang Lang is a bet­ter mu­si­cian when he is record­ing in the stu­dio than when he is per­form­ing live — the lat­ter do­main seems to pro­voke the worst of his ex­tra­ne­ous flour­ishes. “But I never do un­nec­es­sary stuff, whether it’s in the stu­dio or on stage,” he says in­dig­nantly. “First of all, I don’t have time to act ... for me mu­sic is the most sin­cere art and you can­not fake it. I can fake for one day but I can’t fake for 17 years. Ha! I just do as I feel.” He re­counts the fa­mous anec­dote when Mozart laughed off em­peror Joseph II’s com­plaint about The Mar­riage of Fi­garo hav­ing “too many notes”. “I feel the same when peo­ple say my mu­sic is nec­es­sary or not nec­es­sary; to me ev­ery­thing is nec­es­sary.”

Off­stage, Lang Lang de­votes con­sid­er­able time to fos­ter­ing in­ter­na­tional mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion and build­ing mu­sic schools in China through his foun­da­tion. Then there are his vast busi­ness in­ter­ests. One of the rich­est pi­anists in the world, he has long looked to the likes of Tiger Woods and Pavarotti as brand-build­ing he­roes. In 2010, he signed with Sony Clas­si­cal for a re­ported $3 mil­lion in a deal de­scribed then as “the rich­est head­hunt ever seen in clas­si­cal mu­sic”, and has since pro­duced for the la­bel ev­ery­thing from crit­i­cally ac­claimed al­bums to the sound­track for the video game Gran Turismo 5. He sells mu­sic prac­tice apps and books by the truck­load, has re­leased his own line of sneak­ers and a per­fume, and re­cently de­signed a lux­ury watch for Swiss watch­maker Hublot.

There were plans to open a restau­rant in China “but there were a lot of prob­lems … I just re­alised I’m good at build­ing mu­sic schools but restau­rants are too hard”. He is en­trepreneurial but care­ful with his in­vest­ments. “In life, in mu­sic, I like to take risks, but in busi­ness I don’t re­ally want to pick a chal­lenge be­cause I don’t want my par­ents to be so wor­ried about me.”

He is quick to say that the art comes first — his busi­ness strate­gies are al­ways con­nected with his push to spread mu­sic’s mes­sage. “Clas­si­cal mu­sic is a kind of club. But when you go out­side the club, not many peo­ple know what we do and that’s why we need these part­ner­ships [to spread the word].” How much are his hands — fea­tur­ing those ex­traor­di­nar­ily long pinkies and sup­ple dex­ter­ity al­low­ing him to cover 12 keys at a time — in­sured for? There are re­ports of $US20m ($27.5m) or more. He laughs. “It all de­pends on how much you put in; ev­ery year is dif­fer­ent.” (He once said that buy­ing in­sur­ance “is a good psy­cho­log­i­cal way of es­cap­ing the dark­ness of threat of in­jury”.)

On the topic of pol­i­tics and China’s ap­proach to artis­tic free­dom, he says only that “from the be­gin­ning of my ca­reer and my stud­ies, I have al­ways had com­plete free­dom to play any­where, study any­where, to pur­sue my dream. To­day is the same thing.”

He wel­comes the in­creas­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion of China’s clas­si­cal mu­si­cal scene. “Ev­ery big orches­tra is now tour­ing China — Ber­lin Phil, Vi­enna Phil, ev­ery­body — and the thing I like about it is they are not only tour­ing Bei­jing and Shang­hai but they are also go­ing to the sec­ondary cities. They go into Wuhan, to my home­town Shenyang, to the south; it’s re­ally be­com­ing a won­der­ful mar­ket for clas­si­cal mu­sic ... so for me, at least in the per­form­ing arts, it’s very open.”

So where to for mu­sic’s golden boy? Mu­si­cally, “last year’s suc­cess doesn’t mean this year’s suc­cess, so I still need to keep work­ing hard and im­prov­ing”. He is also evangelical about push­ing mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion. “I re­ally want to give ev­ery child in the world the chance to study mu­sic,” he says. But ul­ti­mately, it’s all about cher­ish­ing fam­ily. “It is time now for me to give back to my fa­ther and mother. I want to show them a good time.”

Lang Lang per­forms with the Queens­land Sym­phony Orches­tra in Bris­bane on June 7 and with the Syd­ney Sym­phony Orches­tra on June 10 and 11 af­ter a solo recital in Syd­ney on June 8.


Pi­ano vir­tu­oso Lang Lang, left, and per­form­ing in Versailles, above right

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