In success, Lang Lang blends East and West
Not only has he helped spark the interest of 40 million Chinese children who study piano, but they might even play an instrument named after him. For the first time in 150 years, Steinway named a piano after a single artist to honor the international star.
Lang Lang has played on the world’s grandest stages - at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to a worldwide audience for four billion and at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony and concert for U.S. President Barack Obama.
In February 2012, the Oxford Union invited Lang Lang to give one of his few public speeches and fell under the spell of the “Lang Lang effect.”
More than two hundred figures visit the union every year, and the craze for Lang Lang’s event was almost on par with that for Johnny Depp, probably the most popular figure on the calendar that year.
His affable character was evident during the whole day. Speakers frequently turn up to events late because of their busy schedules (or perhaps to be “fashionably late”), but Lang Lang came more than five hours early to make final changes to his script and practice it aloud. After the speech, he had dinner with 40 students and changed seats throughout the meal so that every student would get a chance to talk to him.
As vice president of the Oxford Union at the time, I became fascinated with the pianist’s story and finally was able to interview him in Germany late last month.
Lang Lang calmly answered even sensitive questions related to a recently aired BBC documentary called “Do or Die: Lang Lang’s Story.”
According to the show, Lang Lang’s father told his son to kill himself when he was only 9 years old. Four years before, his father had decided that his only son would become the best classical pianist in the world and gave up his job as a policeman to live in Beijing with Lang Lang. In the meantime, his mother stayed behind in Shenyang to make money.
Lang Lang’s father wanted his son to get into the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music, but negative feedback from a teacher Lang Lang calls “Professor Angry” led to the suicide proposal.
Here are some excerpts from the interview:
A. He’s a very smart guy, but it was only once that he was crazy to such an extent. After that, he realized his problems. He was strict from time to time, but he really changed after that incident.
He realized that he was crazy then and regretted it?
Even though he doesn’t tell me that directly, I know from the way he changed. I seriously loved music as I do now. Although my father was very strict, he was in the same boat as me. Basically, we were thinking the same dream, which is to become a world-class musician. Unfortunately, this is what it takes to make that dream come true: practice, concentration and very hard discipline. However, when you start performing, you forget all the pain. You only remember the good things. I am sure it’s the same for football players. When they are in the game, they get injured. They get beaten up. However, when they play, they don’t think of anything. They just want to score a goal. Musicians are similar in that you work very hard. You do experience a lot of pain and mental pressure. But when you are playing music, all those things just dissolve.
In hindsight, do you think your dad’s method of education was appropriate?
You have to understand that China was very behind right after the Cultural Revolution. It’s not like today. At that time, to be born in Shenyang and decide that you were going to become a world-class classical pianist was completely crazy. It’s just a very, very weird dream. It’s not like you were in a city in Germany. I think you need to make sacrifices in that circumstance.
I heard you became interested in piano after watching Tom playing as a concert pianist in the popular cartoon “Tom & Jerry.” When did you actually decide to become a professional pianist?
When I was 5, I gave my first-ever recital in my hometown of Shenyang. Before the recital, I was very, very nervous. I remember going to the toilet probably more than 10 times before the performance. However, when I started playing onstage, everything was totally fine. My heart felt really warm. I almost felt as if I became a satellite. I was transmitting messages to the entire globe. I wasn’t by myself anymore. Through music and through sharing music with others, I felt transformed. That’s why I was stunned by the feeling of being on the stage.
Did you know you were a genius?
Absolutely not. I was confident that I was good, but I never felt that I was a genius. Never. This was especially the case when I was younger. This is all thanks to my parents’ excellent education. They didn’t let me fly high when I was a kid. They always kept me on the ground. My father always wanted me to become the best, but he never said I was the best.
Does talent or effort come first in music?
Both. They inspire each other. If you don’t have talent, you won’t practice as hard. If you don’t practice hard enough, your talent will never shine.
If I take a look at your schedule, it seems as if you practice like a machine and have no time for fun. However, you are known as a pianist with deep emotions and personality. How do you explain this contradiction?
I was lucky to have a great cultural teacher, Mr. Doran. He totally opened me up. He taught me how to socialize - especially the American ways of socializing. After I arrived in America, I really developed as a person. It’s not like I got to attend a lot of parties, but I went to a lot of socials. I met different groups of people and started building networks. I went to New York every other weekend or so to meet different people.
Do you think socializing helps you as an artist?
Absolutely, because the artist needs to have things in common with the audience and just people in general. I always try to talk to a variety of people such as lawyers, business people and scientists. It really widens my horizons.
But also for me, what helped me a lot was reading Shakespeare from “Romeo and Juliet” to “Julius Caesar” and “Hamlet.” That really opened me up to the way the Western civilization works and the way Westerners think. It was incredibly helpful for a person like me who was born and raised in Asia.
If you have your Chinese roots and learn Western ways of thinking on top of that, I think it gives you real power. You can understand the world much better because you are from both backgrounds.
I am sure you wanted to come out on top in many different competitions, but your mentor Gary Graffman asked you to give up the No. 1 mentality and stop participating in competitions. He also told you to focus on the process rather than results. How did you find this new way of teaching?
I was very competitive at the time. I thought in the world of piano playing, you must become No. 1. However, my tutor Gary Graffman is one of the best in the world, and he knows what makes a good musician. He knows what he’s talking about: study harmony, study Shakespeare, study socializing skills, study all the biggest concertos one by one, and most importantly, forget about the competitions and being No. 1. It’s stupid. Just focus on all the aspects you need to cultivate as a musician. For example, if you want to become a very strong country, you don’t just need a strong military. You need to have a stable economy. You need health care and a dynamic culture. Without those, you can’t say you are really No.1. You will collapse easily because you have nothing. You only have a stupid idea of being No 1. So Gary Graffman was the first person to throw away my mental fantasy. I started focusing on my English, reading literature and history, attending concerts, and learning everything that I could.
You were thinking long term, no longer short term?
If you win a competition, how many pieces do you have? 10 at most. How many years can you play with these 10 pieces? Two years. OK, you are a superb pianist, but what are you going to do after two years? Your repertoire is gone. You need to study again for three years, and in those years, other talented young pianists will play on the stage. You suddenly become the old guy. I have to tell you, those young pianists are very, very talented.
Some critics say that Lang Lang plays too much Lang Lang and not enough Beethoven and that Lang Lang’s Mozart sounds more Lang Lang than Mozart. Many ask why you “Lang Lang-ize” everything you play, and have commented that you’re too liberal and too emotional. How do you respond to these criticisms?
You will never stop that no matter what you do. No matter how conservative you become, no matter how liberal you become, there are always going to be people who will say, “I think I have a better idea on how to interpret this piece.”
For me, what I can say for sure is that I am following classical music tradition because everything I learned is from the best musicians and I have worked with the top ones. They also have links with great musicians in the past. These musicians are people like Gary Graffman, Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle. Obviously, after you learn tradition, you need to have your own personal touch. Otherwise, you become a copy machine.
Some say you try to make your music cater to popular tastes. What’s your take on this? Is the crowd following you? Are you following the crowd?
First of all, I don’t even know what popular taste is. You can’t try to follow what you don’t know anyway, and it’s pointless to waste time finding it when you are not going to find it. I just try to find the right balance between the underlying principles of given music and my own logic.
I know you have been very passionate about charity work. How did you get interested in that?
I went to Africa in 2004 as a Unicef ambassador. I witnessed how music can change people’s spirits in very difficult situations. So I visited kids with malaria and AIDS. They looked very depressed at first, but they started singing and they started playing. Many of them saw a piano for the first time. They looked very excited. They wanted to have music in their lives. It really touched my heart deeply. Ever since, I started doing fund-raisers and have done about 200.
Can you tell us about the Lang Lang International Music Foundation?
I decided to do something with my own network for disadvantaged kids and talented kids who don’t have a platform. I built a foundation where these two groups of kids can establish themselves.
I sometimes take kids around to some concerts of mine and invite them to play with me onstage. I even let some do solos in front of big audiences. Some kids actually got famous. I want to open doors for them. I would like to open up futures for them.
Is there anything you want to say to Korean fans?
I would say the Korean audience is the most passionate audience in Asia. I will be visiting Korea twice later this year. I am playing for the closing of the Busan International Film Festival, and I am doing a recital at Seoul Arts Center in November.
By John Lee contributing writer [email@example.com]