Like an Olympic competitor, pianist Lang Lang is the master of astonishing physical feats. When I heard him play under the auspices of the Hightstown-East Windsor Concert Association at the Peddie School about two years ago, he breezed his way through a program of Herculean proportions. Aware of his athletic accomplishment, at the end of Brahms’ 40-minute long Sonata No. 3, he raised a triumphant right hand as if he had just won the gold.
He plays a program of comparable difficulty and proportions at McCarter Theatre Monday, March 4, at 8 p.m. The pieces he has chosen are Haydn’s E major Sonata, Hoboken XVI; Mendelssohn’s Fantasies or Caprices, Op. 16; Schubert’s "Wanderer " Fantasy; a Chopin Waltz; a Chopin Nocturne; and Liszt’s "Paganini Etudes."
To watch Lang Lang is to see introspection in action. Eyes closed, his face is a background on which shifting facial expressions play like clouds blown swiftly across the sky. To hear him is to experience an encyclopedia of sound as he ranges from supreme delicacy to powerful drama. To absorb his artistry is to enjoy a roller-coaster ride of tastefully stretched and compressed musical impulses.
Lang Lang, whose name means "very brilliant," is a cheerful performer. "A performer must enjoy himself to communicate with the audience," he says with a laugh. "That’s the first step." The laugh demonstrates to me that Lang Lang has the wherewithal to relax under pressure. He has time for a chuckle in the face of my trying not to waste even a syllable during an interview tucked in as he tries to beat the deadline for checking out of his Chicago hotel room.
Communicating with an audience is central to Lang Lang’s performing style. An auditorium full of listeners brings out his ease and warmth. Both of his CDs were recorded live. The first, a solo recital at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, includes pieces by Haydn, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Balakirev; the Haydn is the sonata in the McCarter program. The second documents his Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 at the London Proms in Royal Albert Hall. He records exclusively for Telarc Records. "Recording live is really exciting for me," he says. "It’s more real. It feels more natural than studio recording."
Lang Lang opens up to an audience, not only in performance, but in post-concert discussions. Unassuming, he responds thoughtfully to questions. He reveals as much as comes to his consciousness about what he does on stage. What goes through his mind as he performs? He sees pictures. How does he memorize so much music? (This stumps him at first, perhaps because his musicmaking is so effortless.) "Memorizing is natural if you love a piece," he says.
Born in Manchuria, Lang Lang, now 19, gives me a thumbnail description of Shen Yang, his birthplace. The inland city was formerly the capital of Manchuria, and was the home of the Qing dynasty, the last imperial rulers of China; their reign lasted from the mid 17th century till 1911. The fourth largest city in China, Shen Yang’s population is seven million.
Lang Lang’s father, Guo-Ren Lang, performs professionally on the erhu, a traditional Chinese two-stringed relative of the violin. His mother, Xiu Lang, a non-professional singer whom Lang Lang says has a very good voice, used to sing in a choir of young people during the Cultural Revolution.
Before he began lessons with Zhu Ya-Fen of the Shen Yang Conservatory at age three, Lang Lang picked out melodies on the piano. By age five, he was performing in public.
I wonder how he managed with what I imagine were kindergarten-sized hands. "I played a Mozart sonatina, a short waltz by Chopin, and some Liszt little pieces for children," he says. "My hands could reach almost an octave when I was five." At 19, and six feet tall, Lang Lang’s reach is now an awe-inspiring 12th. With his thumb on middle C his pinkie extends to the G above the treble staff. Beethoven reached only a 10th — C to E.
Lang Lang undertook piano studies in Beijing at age 9, and had an active performing career in China by the time he was 12. At 13 he won the Tchaikovsky Young Musicians Competition.
Through privately-circulated video and audio recordings, Gary Graffman, president of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, heard Lang Lang play and was impressed. "We don’t accept students at Curtis on the basis of recordings," Graffman told Tim Page of the Washington Post. "All auditions have to be in person — and I was a little bit reluctant to encourage somebody so young to come from so far away." But Lang Lang came and captured a place at Curtis, where he has studied with Graffman since he was 14.
"The transition to Philadelphia was not difficult," Lang Lang says. "I have a wonderful teacher. Curtis gives you an apartment, a Steinway, a full scholarship, and living expenses. It’s a kind of heaven."
The Graffman-Lang Lang relationship is mutually inspiring. Lang Lang appears to be the ideal student. "He can learn anything within a couple of weeks," Graffman told Page. "He just swallows the music whole. His technique is incredible, but he makes music with it. When he plays these very hard pieces, he plays the music, not just the notes."
Lang Lang returns the admiration. "Mr. Graffman was one of the best pianists of his generation," he told Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun. "He not only knows how to play the piano, but has great experience with how to approach music. He really has developed my technique, and he never tries to change my style. He has increased the enjoyment I get from the piano. It’s now easier for me to play for an audience."
Lang Lang’s father was with him in the United States from the beginning. His mother came later. Lang Lang learned English in Philadelphia. "I had a translator in the first year for my lessons," he says. "After that year my English was okay for speaking. Now I read Shakespeare for study and entertainment — `Hamlet’ and `Julius Caesar.’ I have a private teacher. I start to understand more and more. It’s difficult because it’s old. But it’s just like reading ancient Chinese poetry. Two thousand years ago it was a different language. But the ideas are understandable."
A turning point for Lang Lang came in August, 1999, when he substituted at the last minute for an ailing Andre Watts in Illinois. Lang Lang was 17 at the time. He and almost everybody else refer to his triumphal appearance as the "big break in Ravinia." The conductor was Christoph Eschenbach, who, as newly appointed director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, now joins Lang Lang in the city.
Post-Ravinia, Lang Lang gives about 80 concerts a year. His father travels with him and acts as an assistant and secretary; taking time off from assisting his son, he also coaches Western and traditional Chinese music. Sometimes, says Lang Lang, his mother travels with the pair. "My mom cooks for me," Lang Lang says proudly. Her cooking is legendary among those who have enjoyed the family’s hospitality.
Lang Lang continues to study with Graffman. There are pieces in the solo piano literature that he has not yet amassed. Replying to questions about what he has left out and why, he dodges the issue. "I’m still learning," he replies. "I haven’t had time to learn everything. It’s not a matter of why, but of when."
Lang Lang’s concerto repertoire now includes more than 30 compositions, and, like his solo repertoire, is growing. His repertoire is large enough to require systematic tending, although Lang Lang is not rigid about his practice.
"In the morning," he says, "I play technically hard pieces. In the evening, I play something deep, and hard to understand musically: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, or Brahms. In the middle of the day I’ll play Liszt or Chopin. In the morning it might be Rachmaninoff and Liszt." Perhaps bored with his own catalog, he lands a joke. "In the night," he says, "I play nocturnes. It depends day to day."
Until now, contemporary music has played a minor role in Lang Lang’s musical world, but that is changing. Lang Lang has come to know Bright Sheng and Tan Dun, both leading contemporary composers of Chinese background. "I’ve become friends with both of them," he says. "In the future, they’ll write concertos or solo pieces for me. But there are no definite timelines."
A number of people overseeing Lang Lang’s career have worried about his future. Will he successfully make the transition to being an adult performer? Will he burn out? Lang Lang, considering himself a veteran performer, is not concerned. "I started my career at 11 and 12 in Asia," he says. "At that time people could call me a child prodigy. When I got to America I was already 14. In 1999, at the real start of my career, I was 17, and I was treated as an adult. When people listen to my playing they will see that I’m not a child."
Lang Lang shows that he has an adult sense of responsibility for the future of classical music when he asks a question, at the end of our conversation. Since Princeton is a university town, can he expect large numbers of young people at his concert? He considers it a personal project: to increase the numbers of young people who listen to classical music. "Sometimes I have discussions with them after a concert. I reach them. The discussions are very good," he says.
Committed to shaping the taste of young people in music, Lang Lang, nevertheless, shares the interests of his peers. In his spare time he enjoys watching Hollywood movies. He is devoted to NBA basketball, and a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers. Like many people his age, he has a website; yet www.langlang.com is hardly standard. The website is in both English and Chinese. It includes a diary. (Lang Lang says that he feels comfortable writing in English) and photos of Lang Lang in various situations. One is captioned "Having fun at the Hard Rock cafe in London," and shows the pianist holding an electric guitar, perhaps the signature instrument of his contemporaries. He is included in Teen People’s April issue among "The Top 20 Teens Who Are Going to Change the World."
Lang Lang answers the question of a Philadelphia interviewer, "Who’s the smartest person you know?" by replying, as many people his age might, "Tiger Woods. We’ve met, and he’s my model for the musical world." To U.S. 1 he explains, "Tiger Woods has won big titles and is an inspiration. As a musician you try to play every night your best, and make every concert your best. Tiger Woods is a model of doing your best. He inspires young people."
Lang Lang, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. The 19-year-old piano master. $27 and $30. Monday, March 4, 8 p.m.