Born in the small Chinese town of Shenyang, Lang Lang began piano at age three, gave his first public recital at five, entered Beijing’s Central Music Conservatory at nine, and went on to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. His inevitable big break came in 1999 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Gala as a last-minute substitute for André Watts, where he played Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. John von Rhein wrote breathlessly for the Chicago Tribune: “The fabulous technique, the absolute control (even at hell-bent tempos), the flexible rhythm, the firmly centered, infinitely colored tone that can switch on a dime from tornadolike intensity to supple delicacy, the risktaking temperament — all these things are already there in his pianism.” Years later, the critics haven’t remained so kind. Many are put off by the theatricality of his playing: “His penchant for self-indulgent, overly emotive playing usually takes over,” Anthony Tommasini opined in the New York Times last year. “Bang Bang” (which, for the record, doesn’t rhyme) is the persistent nickname that dogs him, generally delivered with smugness by many a less successful pianist who has written his own period-appropriate cadenza to Mozart’s K537. For all these aesthetic concerns, no one seems to have a problem with Lang Lang’s technique, which is capacious; his charitable work, which is selfless; his energy, which is bottomless; his work ethic, which is constant; or his curiosity, which is boundless. Lang Lang is expanding the worldwide audience for classical music — and he is still maturing. He is also very busy, and spoke to Listen Magazine from the tarmac on a delayed flight from Chicago to Beijing.
You are a global ambassador for music now, to be sure.
What do you hope to do with this position?
I’ve been involved in my foundation, the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. And we are now in the public schools, in the curriculum, giving music lessons, music classes — starting in America. We’re in underprivileged areas with very passionate students: Harlem, East Brooklyn, wonderful kids. Maybe they don’t have the budget to study music, but we’re bringing the budget to the schools, and bringing pianos and music teachers into the schools. And we are bringing the message with us.
You’ve had the opportunity to play with a lot of people that most classical musicians don’t encounter. First, there was your performance with Metallica, playing “One” with the band at the Grammys. Were you a Metallica fan before that experience?
I really love their music, though I wasn’t so familiar with it before: I wasn’t really listening to this type of music. But Metallica is a legendary band, an iconic ensemble. And when I began studying their music and working with those great musicians I felt their enormous passion, which is so inspiring even though they are not the classical musicians with whom I work every day. They are great musicians and I have huge admiration and respect for them.
What did you take from that collaboration?
Excitement. They play with their heart and don’t hold back. They give everything, absolutely everything to the performance. Whether it’s classical music or rock ‘n’ roll or heavy metal, it should be the same thing: you need to play with heart.
How about your work on “Happy” with Pharrell and Hans Zimmer?
Hans Zimmer wrote all that music. It was very Hollywood meets Pharrell!
And you also worked with Zimmer on Kung Fu Panda 3. You noted that he was able to capture ‘a Chinese culture that is melting. . . .’
Hans Zimmer is really incredible. He is not Chinese, yet he put so many Chinese elements into the Kung Fu Panda series. Through all three movies, what you hear — it’s like he’s a Chinese person! He really brings those Chinese lutes [the pipa] intohis composition. And when I started playing the tunes, I found out he really speaks the Chinese language. It’s very important for Chinese music to have these international interpretations because it’s been a great culture for five thousand years, and then,with Hans Zimmer, you have a new interpretation on that culture.
Tell me about working with Herbie Hancock.
We actually recorded the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, the [original] arrangement for two pianos and it’s going to come out in September. We did a big tour in 2010 to 2011, that really became a classical/jazz tour together. We played many cities in America and Europe — and I learned so much! To have the guts, to have the confidence to play more color on the piano.
What does that mean?
Hancock is a genius; he plays with such beautiful colors. And as a jazz musician, there are no barriers in his music, in his art of creation. He is a totally free, spiritual guy. Hearing him play, it’s so enjoyable and relaxing at the same time. And I think that’s what a classical musician needs to learn about those incredible jazz musicians who have sensibility, sensitivity and are in the moment: everything is different every night. And that makes their lives so much more interesting; they never repeat.
‘At the end of the day, we are citizens of the world and we can share our love and our culture and our respect for different interpretations.’
When I think of global classical ambassadors at the moment I think of you, of Yo-Yo Ma, of Yuja Wang. It can’t be a coincidence that I immediately think of three Asians and Asian Americans.
I really look up to Yo-Yo Ma; he is an incredible musician. Both Yuja and I share a teacher: Gary Graffman, who was a great influence on us both. Graffman understands Asian culture and is a big collector of Asian art. And it’s interesting that he can combine world cultures — whether with Chinese music or German music or American music. I just recorded a New York concert with PBS [also a forthcoming album from Sony Classical]. There’s some Copland, Bernstein, Gershwin and Cole Porter. I also like to bring Chinese music to America — and American music to China! Also, at the moment, I’ve been working on a solo recital of Spanish music. At the end of the day, we are citizens of the world and we can share our love and our culture and our respect for different interpretations.
You mentioned Graffman’s art collection, and I know that you often try to put classical composers in proper context through history, through research — even through costume. How does that ultimately aid in your interpretation?
It’s really thanks to the great conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I had the privilege to work on pianoforte and harpsichord with him and experienced listening to Baroque and early music on its original instruments. And in my family, my father played the Chinese folk instrument, the erhu [a two-string bowed instrument]. I really like to listen to those old, very poetic compositions from the original instruments and that gave me this “authentic” taste.
As you become a more mature player, are there certain composers with whom your relationship has changed?
Absolutely. Every composer is different from when I was a kid, or even a teenager. We’re growing with their music. Especially composers like Bach, Brahms, late Beethoven — they have a huge impact on me as I get older.
Why is that?
I don’t know. Their music is timeless. I mean, I see Mozart and Chopin differently, too, but somehow I think that late Beethoven sonatas, Brahms concertos, the Bach Goldberg Variations, when you’re aging, learning more, they seem more affecting. I think so. And in a natural way, not forced. Not ‘Okay, today you need to play Goldberg Variations.’ No, it’s that gradually you get more mature.
‘As human beings, we cannot just lock ourselves in the practice room twenty-four hours a day.’
You had some hard times in your childhood as a soloist. When I spoke to pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, he said he was grateful to begin his career with Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporain because it saved him from what he termed ‘the poisonous life of a soloist.’ But you certainly seem to be a very social being now. Does the life of a soloist remain difficult for you?
When I was living in Beijing, it was more of a conservatory and conservative lifestyle, with a focus solely on piano. But when I came to Curtis, Gary Graffman opened me up — socializing, going to tea every week, talking to people, expressing my feelings on music and life, to be a person who’s more communicative rather than just someone who sits at home practicing every day. I really like it. As human beings, we cannot just lock ourselves in the practice room twenty-four hours a day. There’s nothing wrong with practicing, but we also need to go out. Just to be healthy as a person, as a normal, regular… guy. [Laughs.]
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.