Lang Lang
Lang Lang | Credit: Simon Webb

Keeping his childhood passion for the piano very much alive, Lang Lang, now 40 and decidedly one of the reigning superstar musicians on the planet, released Piano Book in 2019. Featuring selections such as “Chopsticks” and Beethoven’s Für Elise, the recording marked his return to the studio following a severe case of tendinitis that began two years earlier, one that had also sidelined him from concertizing for more than a year.

And in yet another wide swing of the musical pendulum, Lang Lang then tackled Bach’s Goldberg Variations with a 2020 release that included both live and studio recordings. But when Lang Lang and special guests, including his wife Gina Alice Redlinger (the pair married in 2019 at Versailles), perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under conductor Jahja Ling at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 15, the concert will be far from Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms and will instead feature a program of all-Disney works, including film clips and fireworks.

Disney Book cover

It’s no coincidence, either, that Lang Lang’s latest album, The Disney Book, drops the next day. Having sold millions of recordings around the world, topping classical charts while achieving simultaneous mainstream success, Lang Lang, who was born in Shenyang, China, and began studying piano at age 3, seems to have retained a child’s sense of wonder. Well, if that child was one who entered Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music at 9 and won first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians at 13.

Indeed, Lang Lang, who subsequently went to Philadelphia to study with acclaimed pianist Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music, was 17 when he burst onto the scene substituting for André Watts, playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Christoph Eschenbach. Still at the top of his star-studded game, during the last decade or so, the musician has performed for dignitaries including President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, and Queen Elizabeth II.

In addition, Lang Lang was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2019, while his sold-out concerts with the world’s top orchestras have allowed him to form ongoing collaborations with conductors such as Simon Rattle, Gustavo Dudamel, and Daniel Barenboim.

Also an educator and philanthropist, in 2008 Lang Lang, who has more than 20 million social media followers, not only performed at the Beijing Olympics for a TV audience of 5 billion but also founded the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. Aimed at cultivating future top pianists, championing music education, and building a young audience through live music experiences, the organization is close to his heart.

Lang Lang
Lang Lang | Credit: Simon Webb

SF Classical Voice caught up with the indefatigable musician, currently in Spain. Lang Lang, who is based in both Manhattan and Shanghai, was open to a myriad of topics, including his fondness for the Bowl, Disney music, and his crossover appeal.

How many times have you performed at the Hollywood Bowl, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this season, and what makes it special for you?

This is my fourth or fifth time. I think the Bowl is the perfect place to reach a new audience, and it’s really wonderful that every time I play, there are a lot of new audiences who haven’t seen classical music concerts before. They bring drinks. They’re having a picnic and a good time. It’s very family-oriented and a place for friends to gather.

We don’t have so many venues like the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a bridge between the old sort of music, particularly for classical, and this time, because it’s an all-Disney program.

You’ve been a Disney fan for what seems like forever. What can audiences expect to hear in this program, which will feature special performances by The Tenors, singer and guitarist Edna Vazquez, and your wife, pianist Gina Alice Redlinger.

I started watching Disney films as a little kid. I was also watching Tom and Jerry and Transformers, but if you look into the quantity of animation, I think Disney is number one for me — from Micky Mouse and Fantasia to Lion King and then to Snow White. I knew Mary Poppins much later. Some of the Disney films I watched after I arrived in the U.S., [like] the [Big] Bad Wolf with “The Three [Little] Pigs.” This was one of the better ones.

For this all-Disney program, I invited some of my friends, including my wife. This will be like a real family concert with great transcriptions, which we worked so hard on over the last four years. Every piece is a new version, and they’re inspired by Chopin, by Liszt, Bernstein, Gershwin, Debussy. Everything we’re trying to make in a very, very classical technique with piano skills in this project. We don’t want something like bar music.

Lang Lang
Lang Lang performs at Disneyland | Credit: Richard Harbaugh

No, no karaoke music, although folks will probably be singing along with some of the tunes. Is this the first time your wife will be performing with you?

In the U.S., yes. And on a big stage, it’s her first performance with me, particularly [since] this time she will play piano and sing. She’s getting more nervous than me! And she’s singing our favorite song, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

You were married in 2019, and last year your son was born. How has getting married and having a child changed your life?

For me, my son brings so much joy to my life. Just watching him, it’s one of the best things to do in life. He’s so cute, he’s a cutie pie — especially now. He’s starting to talk words — papa, mama — and this is the best time. This complete new life begins and [brings] freshness to my career and to focus on family life.

Will you bring him to the Bowl?

I will bring him to California. He was already here, not in Disney Hall, but he was with us. This time, I’m thinking maybe I will bring him to the Hollywood Bowl. This is a good time to see live concerts because he’s always watching me and Gina practicing at home.

You’ve had wonderful mentors over the years, including Franz Welser-Möst, the music director of The Cleveland Orchestra, and 79-year-old conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, who once said of you, “Either the child goes and the prodigy remains, or the prodigy goes and the child remains.” How would you describe your relationship with Barenboim, and what kind of advice has he given you over the years?

I love him so much. We just did a tour in Europe. He’s always encouraging me to play new repertory that I’m not so familiar with. He asked me to play Bartók’s Second [Piano Concerto], and this time he asked me also to play de Falla’s Night in the Gardens of Spain. I was very touched, especially this time, because he’s not physically 100 percent. He’s so devoted to music, even with this condition. He stood up with all the concerts.

It’s unbelievable, this love for music he has. He wants to do his best onstage. Not only he’s a great musician himself, but he’s so devoted. I’ve never seen anyone who’s devoted like him.

He is there every night standing on the stage. He’s not in perfect [physical] condition, but his mind is maybe 100 percent, but he gave me his best. It’s incredible. The knowledge he has. It’s like a universe; he’s like a Wikipedia. He’s always there for me, and I’m very fortunate to have a mentor like him.

Lang Lang
Lang Lang | Credit: Olaf Heine

That does sound like a special relationship. Is there any conductor or orchestra you’d like to work with that you haven’t?

Yes. Recently, there’s a group of many new young conductors. I’m not talking about Yannick [Nézet-Séguin] or [Gustavo] Dudamel — those are my good friends for many years. There’s the Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä of the Concertgebouw, a very good-looking guy who’s 26. Lahav Shani is music director of the Israeli Philharmonic. So, there are many new conductors I’d really like to explore concerts [with]. I’m curious, and this is a new time of new conductors.

What about performing new music, works composed specifically for you? Is that in the cards?

New music? I’m not doing too many new composers. After Goldberg, it opens a new door for Bach. I would like to try some new composers, but it has to have the right chemistry. I hope I will do more. In the moment, I don’t have a plan now.

Obviously, the pandemic affected everybody, but it was particularly hard on performing musicians. How was it for you?

I did a lot of tours in China during the first part of the pandemic, and I recorded the Goldberg [Variations]. We were also working on the Disney album. It was four years in the making and has almost 20 composers. We did it on Zoom. That was a big part of this project. We recorded in seven different studios throughout two years — in Shanghai, Beijing, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, L.A., and then [we did] a music video in Prague.

Among the tunes on The Disney Book are new versions of songs from Pinocchio and The Jungle Book and from Frozen and Encanto.

Yes, we had so many sessions. And the sessions that I didn’t like, we had to redo everything. It’s actually taken even longer than Goldberg, [and] I prepared more than 20 years for that. But this one, the process of making the first to last song was [difficult].

You performed with Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden in the summer of 2019. I understand the two of you rocked a bit of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, some Bach, and even the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. So, is this now the cool thing to do?

I like it. I recently, last year, did something with Coldplay. Chris Martin loves Chopin. He’s his favorite composer. He’s one of the biggest rock stars, and his hero is Chopin. If you listen to his melody, it’s not surprising. It’s very Romantic.

Do you ever suffer from a case of nerves, and what are your preconcert rituals?

If I’m doing a new concerto, I get nervous, but if I’m doing something for a long time, I’m not nervous at all. Certainly, to play the Goldberg, it’s a challenge. It’s so long this piece, particularly when you play everything. It’s two hours without break. Normally, I take a nap before a concert. I [also] eat chocolate and fresh fruit.

You were once described by a critic as “a work in progress.” How would you describe yourself now?

I’m still only 40. For a classical pianist, we’re still young. [Maurizio] Pollini played recitals at 80, [Vladimir] Horowitz at 86, so I have a long way to go. I’m ready for the next challenge. But I would like to do more of my foundation work. I would like to keep playing new recital programs. Each year I will bring something new to the music world. My next recital is Chopin mazurkas.