From a difficult childhood in China to playing for President Obama and Queen Elisabeth II, pianist Lang Lang's "Journey Of A Thousand Miles" has taken him a long way indeed.
LONDON - On the morning following his evening with Britain's Royal Family, Lang Lang was hungry. So he picked up the phone in his London hotel suite and called Berlin to ask his PR agency to call the hotel and order him a club sandwich and French fries. When our interview was scheduled to start, at 1:30 p.m., a waiter brought the food to the conference table in the Mayfair room at the Langham Hotel. But Lang Lang wasn't there. By the time he walked through the door a half hour later, the fries were cold.
He apologized for being late. The night before he had given a concert for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Royal Albert Hall, and then afterwards he and some other musicians including Paul McCartney, Elton John and Robbie Williams were invited to Buckingham Palace with Prince William and Kate and Prince Harry. "Really very interesting conversations," even if everybody always asks him the same thing: how many hours a day does he practice, how old was he when he started to play the piano, and what's the life of a concert pianist like.
He had already met the Queen once before, but this time she wasn't so cheerful because she was worried about her husband's health. Otherwise "she's sweet somehow. In fact she's very sweet." Anyway, he got back to his suite around 2 a.m. and couldn't sleep, damn jet lag, turned on the TV and by the time he finally nodded off, ended up sleeping until noon the next day.
Lang Lang sits down in front of the plate of food, offers some of the cold fries, and starts eating. There he is: the most popular classical musician on the planet, nibbling at his sandwich, like a little prince in his black Armani jacket. Back in Beijing where he was brought up by a tyrannical father, he used to share a bathroom with seven others but today he treads the plush carpets of the world's finest hotels and sleeps in suites equipped with every luxury including his own piano.
The former wunderkind began his musical career by winning several major piano competitions, then made his concert debut when he replaced another pianist who had fallen ill. That concert made him an overnight star. It's strange that there hasn't been a movie about his life yet – everything else has already been done, including a 3-D concert DVD.
Lang Lang, whose first name (朗) means "Sunshine" and whose family name (郎) means "Cultured Gentleman" in Chinese, is today's only real classical music superstar, as famous as top athletes and actors. Worldwide, his name is googled 50 times more than that of soprano Anna Netrebko, number two in the classical music Jet Set. Nearly two billion people -- almost a third of the world's population -- watched Lang Lang playing the piano at the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games.
Because his name has become ubiquitous, many people are under the impression that Lang Lang has been on the music scene for a very long time. But he's only just turning 30. How does he see the future? Lang Lang is sitting comfortably, his legs crossed, slim-fingered hands folded. If the rumor is to be believed, his hands are insured for $70 million. In his deep voice, he talks about what he wants to do with the next decade of his life.
"I want to give fewer concerts, and focus more on my foundation." The Lang Lang International Music Foundation organizes master classes and competitions for young pianists. "I'll be spending more and more time on charity work," says the man known for giving as many as 150 concerts a year.
This year he will only give 120, and he plans to reduce the number even more in the future. "Right now I'm learning how to say no to concert dates." The most important thing is to focus "on further developing myself as a pianist." There is so much music he has yet to play publicly: contemporary pieces, but mostly Beethoven sonatas, Mozart concertos – and Bach. This is the music that anyone who wants to be a truly great artist must master.
The kid with the crazy hair
And there it is again: his old problem. To many, Lang Lang is still the kid with the crazy hair and advertising contracts with Adidas and Coca Cola who can play superficial music written for effect faster than anybody else, but who doesn't have a clue about musical depth. This view is widely held in Germany.
Music critics can get very huffy when the masses buy records they wouldn't recommend. An interviewer for the German magazine Stern once accused Lang Lang of "capitalist insatiability" and claimed: "Many of the people who listen to your music wouldn't know a minor key from a major one." Fans of classical music without a clue about harmonic theory, what is the country of Bach and Beethoven coming to!
But nobody can take Lang Lang's formidable musical abilities away from him. His style is clear, marked by a preference for a light, pearly sound. He used to have a tendency to overdo the virtuosity but he's curbed that in recent recordings.
In concert he still tends to make movements that seem affected, but what these mainly do is show how playfully he can handle even the most difficult technical challenges. It's not that it's childish --it's just a bit show-offy. As we talk about his critics and the kinds of things they say, Lang Lang crosses his arms across his chest and says: "No comment." But you can tell it gets to him.
In reply to a question about why he has so many young fans, his reaction is defensive. "I have to contradict you," he says loudly. "If you look around at the audience of my concerts, there are many more old people than younger ones. Many more! The hard core of my fans consists of the same people who also like older pianists. I must make that clear." One gets the feeling that having too many young people in the audience is seen as something of a flaw.
In any case, he's been coached on how to get rid of the lingering remnants of his teeny image. He's already been filmed (the sessions are on YouTube) receiving guidance from mentor Daniel Barenboim on interpreting Beethoven's "Appassionata," and this summer he's going to Salzburg for a six-day master class with Mozart guru Nikolaus Harnoncourt. "You can learn an incredible amount from artists of that stature," he says. His whole life so far, Lang Lang has been used to perceiving music as a fight, as being something to beat others at. Now he's preparing himself more gently for the next rounds.
When he was 26-years-old, he published an autobiography called A Journey Of A Thousand Miles that portrayed the Chinese music scene as merciless, full of pressure, envy, and corruption. The book also talks about his father Lang Guoren, the only person who was even more obsessed with his making it to the top than he was. In his spare time, Lang Lang liked to play with toy Transformer figures that he could turn into robots or machines. One day, when he refused to return to piano practice, Lang Guoren grabbed his toy chest and flung all the Transformers out the window.
Ready for a girlfriend
When a teacher suspended Lang Lang, then nine years old, because he supposedly lacked musical talent, his father gave him a pack of antibiotics and urged him to swallow all 30 tablets. "Then it'll all be over, you'll be dead." It was only when Lang Lang threatened to break his own fingers --the family's most valuable asset-- that his father let up.
"My father always supported me," Lang Lang says. "But when you throw yourself in something as completely as he did, you can go too far." That was a long time – 21 years – ago. "As a kid, I sometimes hated my father. But I gradually understood that he and I shared the same dream. So over time I forgot what he did."
It's been six years since his father accompanied him on his world travels. Lang Guoren lives in Beijing and manages his son's engagements in China. Now, Lang Lang travels with his mother. "Some of my colleagues enjoy travelling alone. I don't. My job can be very lonely. "
Lang Lang says he would like a girlfriend. "In my early twenties, I didn't have any time. But now I feel ready." However he still hasn't met anybody. His mother is with him in London, in fact as we speak she's upstairs packing his stuff. In two hours they'll fly to Berlin where he's due to spend five days recording some Chopin études and nocturnes.
"I'm impatient. I like to work quickly," he says. He doesn't usually need more than three sessions to learn a piece of music. Although he lives in New York and Beijing, he's celebrating his birthday on June 14 in Berlin, then giving a concert with jazz pianist Herbie Hancock on the next day. "I learned how to improvise from Hancock, and I really enjoy it. I've noticed that I can make up beautiful melodies. Once I've learned more about building compositions, I could very well see myself composing some day."
The little prince, who sacrificed his childhood to music, will be celebrating his 30th birthday with friends from around the world. His father will also be there. He's been getting birthday presents from fans for weeks, chocolate, stuffed animals, and more Transformer figures than he knows what to do with.
Read the original article in German
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