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A Lang Lang Primer

September 8, 2009

As he prepares to open the San Francisco Symphony’s 2009-2010 season Wednesday with Prokofiev’s challenging Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26, in Davies Symphony Hall, 27-year-old Lang Lang seems to have embraced his superstar pianist reputation — and run with it.

In addition to jetting hither and thither around the globe, sustaining an oft-punishing schedule that mirrors the demands put on him by his father during his formative years in China, he’s the youngest person ever appointed as International Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF. Credited with inspiring over 35 million Chinese youth to study classical piano, he has launched the Lang Lang International Music Foundation “to support extraordinarily talented young pianists and to enrich the lives of children worldwide by deeper understanding and enjoyment of music.” Is it any wonder that he had time for only a few of the questions I sent him by email?

Lang Lang’s ascent to stardom is astounding. His stream of successes began on his home turf, when he won the Shenyang Piano Competition and gave his first public recital at age 5. Pushed to enter competitions by his ex-policeman father and the competition-oriented expectations of Chinese culture, he next won the Xing Hai Cup Piano Competition in Beijing when he was 11. The following year, he took first prize for outstanding artistic performance at the Fourth International Young Pianists Competition in Germany. Then, in 1995, he won first place at the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians' Competition in Japan.

After giving a number of prestigious concerts in his homeland, he and his father borrowed money to fly to the U.S. and audition for Gary Graffman, president of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Present at the audition, in addition to Graffman, were pianists Leon Fleisher, Claude Frank, Seymour Lipkin, and Peter Serkin. As a result of the impact he made, he entered Curtis in 1997 on a full scholarship.

After two years of study, his big break came. A woman who overheard his audition for the Cleveland Orchestra in Carnegie Hall connected him with Christoph Eschenbach, musical director of Chicago’s Ravinia Festival.His jet-setting triumph quickly led to invitations from major U.S. orchestras; recording offers from Telarc and Deutsche Grammophon; and debuts at Carnegie Hall and the BBC Proms, the latter made in the gargantuan Royal Albert Hall in August 2001.

Lang Lang made his San Francisco debut in 2000 in a solo recital sponsored by San Francisco Performances. His first appearance with the San Francisco Symphony came the same year. The pianist’s subsequent visits to San Francisco have included four appearances as soloist with the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall, another in Davies with the China Philharmonic Orchestra, a chamber music performance with San Francisco Symphony orchestra members, three recitals with San Francisco Performances, and a week long artist residency with the Symphony last December that included solos with orchestra, recitals, chamber performances, and extensive work with youth. Other appearances in the greater Bay Area could not be confirmed by press time.

In his autobiography, Journey of a Thousand Miles (2008), written with David Ritz, Lang Lang refers to the critical backlash that has dogged his career. He notes that only a week after his triumph at Ravinia, Gary Graffman warned him that critical reaction might change.

“At the moment, you’ve got a couple of good reviews,” Graffman reportedly said. “You’re the new golden boy. But no one remains the golden boy for long. New artists who burst onto the scene and win the hearts of the public are usually given a honeymoon. It might last a year or two. Then the critics start sharpening their knives. It doesn’t happen in every case, but often enough to be forewarned. Still, no matter how the press review you, you’ll be fine — as long as you have the respect of your fellow musicians and the love of the public.”

Indeed, it didn’t take long for criticism of Lang Lang’s playing to surface. Even as his technique was lauded, he was (and remains) assailed for elevating showmanship and flair over emotional depth. In his angry response in his autobiography, he writes, “How can a critic tell me what Tchaikovsky had in mind when that critic has never met Tchaikovsky? ... There are no literal instructions, for example, for how hard to press the keys or how emotionally or unemotionally to employ rubato. Playing music is not rocket science. ...”

Although he is obviously wary of critics and journalists, he did provide succinct answers to three of my questions. Because his English is less than perfect, the responses have been edited by both his publicity liaison and me:

I’ve been listening to Evgeny Kissin’s recent recording of the Prokofiev 3. It’s considerably slower than Prokofiev’s own, with a very romantic, sweet opening to the second movement, and a sometimes surprising amount of tenderness. What is your approach to Prokofiev’s alteration between sweet slowness and raucous rambunctiousness? How do you put it all together so that the work not only coheres, but comes off as more than a virtuoso tour de force?

I’ve been playing the Third Concerto for a long time, and it’s definitely my favorite of all Prokofiev’s concertos. It’s an incredible work of art. There’s some really stunning contrasts of moods, colors, and dynamics. As you pointed out with the Kissin recording, there’s just a huge range of emotions for the performer to explore ... [and] that alone makes it really easy to keep the piece from sounding simply like a virtuosic work.

You've been a tremendous inspiration to the youth of China and other countries. Most recently, your Lang Lang International Music Foundation has been granted nonprofit status in the U.S. In addition to supporting gifted children enrolled in music schools and conservatories, do you have any plans to reach out to disadvantaged youth in the U.S. who are not normally exposed to classical music? What can you and we do to bring classical music to youth who are rarely, if ever, exposed to its greatness?

The Foundation supports very talented young pianists, but the Foundation seeks to improve the lives of children everywhere through the power of music. This, of course, includes children who for whatever reason do not study classical music or have not been exposed to it. I’ve given several master classes and concerts for young school children, which is certainly part of the solution, but we need to make a concerted effort. That is why the Foundation is teaming up with UNICEF and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. These groups will really help the Foundation to have as broad a reach as possible.

What were the highlights of your residency with the San Francisco Symphony last December?

My favorite part of the residency was giving piano lessons to the high school kids. And bringing understanding to them about classical music.

Tonight, Sept. 8, at 7:30 p.m., Lang Lang discusses his art and life with pianist Sarah Cahill in Zellerbach Hall, 2430 Bancroft Way on the UC Berkeley campus. Tickets for the event, cosponsored by KPFA Radio, Berkeley Arts & Letters, the Institute of International Studies, and the UC Center for Chinese Studies, are available through the Cal Performances box office (510-642-9988) and Web site.

For tickets to San Francisco Symphony’s Gala opening, which begins at 8:30 p.m., call (415) 864-6000, or go to the San Francisco Symphony Web site.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.