Lang Lang, the man with the $20 million hands
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.
FOR ME MUSIC IS THE MOST SINCERE ART AND YOU CANNOT FAKE IT LANG LANG
Piano virtuoso Lang Lang, left, and performing in Versailles, above right