In a world musical landscape shaped and influenced by modern music like no other age, classical music has experienced a new resurgence of popularity thanks in no small measure to a charismatic young virtuoso from Shenyang province, China, named Lang Lang. From the moment he steps onto the concert stage, whether it be in Beijing, Vienna, New York, Washington or in Melbourne, his luminescent persona imbues the auditorium with a kind of frisson that no musical technique nor marketing spin can explain. Lang Lang was interviewed exclusively by The Asian Executive as part of the The Langham Melbourne Masterclass event held at the Melbourne Recital Centre.
Sometimes it is the simplest and most innocent of activities which start the journey of a lifetime. At the age of only two years old, a precocious Lang Lang is watching a cartoon of Tom and Jerry on the television. The episode in question is called The Cat Concerto and the piece he hears is the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt. To his impressionable ears, he hears, for the first time, the sound of a piano, which to him “sounded magical – like the sweep of a whole orchestra”.
From that point on, accelerated piano progress led to his first public performance at the age of five years and where he won the Shengyang Competition. As a nine year old student of the Beijing Central Music Conservatory, Lang Lang won the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians Competition. By age 13, he had performed the complete set of 24 Chopin Etudes in the Beijing Concert Hall.
Life’s opportunities sometimes come with thunderclap surprise. A last minute change of program with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra included a relatively unknown seventeen-year-old Lang Lang. News of his performance ricocheted across the Atlantic where he became an instant sold-out hit at London’s famous Albert Hall.
His popularity has grown exponentially through numerous interviews and performances on the powerful American TV chat shows, including The Today Show, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Good Morning America and 60 Minutes. International magazines such as Vogue, GQ, Cosmopolitan and Readers Digest has carried his name far and wide.
In 2009, Time magazine listed Lang Lang as amongst the 100 most influential people in the world. His influence on international music is so great that when President Barak Obama hosted a state dinner for guest of honour, China’s President Hu Jintao in January of this year, Lang Lang was invited to show off not just his virtuosity but also, perhaps more importantly, his ability to act as an instantly recognisable bridge between two divergent cultures.
Even the most prestigious piano brand in the world has joined the Lang Lang popularity bandwagon. For the first time in its illustrious 150 year old history, Steinway has created 5 special “Lang Lang” models specially designed for young pianists. Lang Lang’s musicianship displays a full-blooded and, many would say, sensuous interpretation of the classics.
How does Lang Lang reflect on this take of his musical style? “I have many sides in my character, and I believe all artists do. When I play the music, I just follow my heart and instinct. What you hear is my real self on display.” Listening to so many of his great performances, one cannot fail to be impressed with his technical precision, his intellectual analysis and his depth of maturity for someone who has not yet reached thirty years of age.
His musical influences seem to stem from a variety of sources. “Oh, yes, there are many great figures who have influenced my life: Horowitz, Rubinstein, Gary Graffman, Chistophe Eschenbach, Daniel Barenboim, and some composers like Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff,” he says.
Despite the weight of so much travelling and numerous encounters with scores of admiring dignitaries, Lang Lang still retains an air of sweetness and charm. When acknowledging The Langham Melbourne in his speech to a Melbourne audience, he warmly referenced the great Australian actor Geoffrey Rush in the audience for his portrayal of legendary Australian pianist David Helfgott in the Academy Award winning film, Shine.
The musical education of young children is a major mission in Lang Lang’s life. Lang Lang’s own efforts have brought about the creation of the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. Through this foundation, Lang Lang partners with those who share his vision to spread the word that classical music is fun, enriching and ennobling. His advice to young people wishing to embark on a career as a solo music performer is simple but profound. “Keep practicing and keep passionate about what you are doing. I suggest joining my Foundation where you can have a great opportunity to communicate with and be inspired by other young people.”
Given his extroverted, sunny, almost Mozartean disposition, it was posed to him what type of work would he contemplate if it were not for his rare gift identified at such an early age. “This is a question I really haven’t thought of because to be a pianist has been my biggest dream since I was 2 years old. But if I had to choose – maybe a talk show host! Who knows?”