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On the Bench With Lang Lang

September 29, 2015

Lang Lang (Photo by Harald Hoffmann / Sony Classical)Lang Lang really doesn’t need an introduction. He’s a phenomenon — a global superstar. He’s performed at the Olympics and the GRAMMYs, on Oprah and the Today Show. He has endorsements from Armani, Montblanc, and Volkswagen. He’s launched his own line of Adidas shoes and his own celebrity fragrance (called, appropriately, Amazing).  But when he plays the piano, none of that matters. When I last heard him in recital, all I could think about was the sheer joy in making music that pours out of his hands and bubbles off the stage and floods over his audience. I found myself literally grinning with happiness for two hours as I sat there listening to his Chopin: music in flight, soaring without a net, surprising, thrilling, truly inspiring.

You’re practically a Californian these days. Next week you’ll be at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State, where you’re playing the opening night gala concert on October 3, and then the following night presenting a concert of your International Music Foundation’s 101 Pianists program, featuring 100 young Bay Area piano students. And on the 13th you’re in San Francisco, playing Grieg and Mozart concertos with the San Francisco Symphony. 

So the obvious first question is: In this food-obsessed city, where will you be eating? I know that you love to find great Chinese food whenever you go, so tell us your favorite local restaurants.

The Bay Area has some of the best and authentic Beijing-style restaurants, so I always love going out to eat here. I'm happy to find authentic food that reminds me of home!

All over the Bay Area, there are young pianists who are practicing very hard for your 101 Pianists concert next week. For the kids who are performing with you in this concert, it’s an amazing, probably life-changing opportunity, and I know that this is a very important and personal project for you as well.

You’ve said that your work with young people is your “second career.” When you’re working to bring music to young people, both the talented young pianists you support through your foundation and the many children around the world you reach through your work with the United Nations, is there one central message you hope to communicate about music?

My foundation’s work with youth is incredibly important to me. The mission is to educate, inspire, and motivate the next generation of classical music lovers and performers. I truly believe that music is a powerful tool to create cultural exchange, which over time translates into a greater awareness of humanity. Sharing music can help the next generation of leaders and citizens to bridge cultural gaps and unite their communities, locally and globally. It’s a way to change the world, and the way people perceive and communicate with each other. "I think it’s very important that young people learn to love music as part of life, and I hope that my excitement and passion will inspire the next generation to love and experience music not just as performers, but also as listeners, as the audiences, the music educators, and indeed the performers of the future..."

There are literally millions of little pianists who dream of being Lang Lang. What do you see in their future, and the future of classical music? 

Well, I want to inspire young people in a broad way. Being a touring concert pianist is not the only way to live a life in music – there are many ways to share music in the world. I think it’s very important that young people learn to love music as part of life, and I hope that my excitement and passion will inspire the next generation to love and experience music not just as performers, but also as listeners, as the audiences, the music educators, and indeed the performers of the future, I will be very honored. 

Your own teacher and mentor was Gary Graffman, and Gary has always felt deeply that musicians must draw inspiration and nourishment from the world at large, not just confine themselves to a narrow view from the practice room. What are the things that most inspire you, aside from the great composers themselves? 

Gary is a very special teacher, and I still go to him for an additional point of view, when I am working on repertoire. He knows and teaches that the entire human experience contributes to musical interpretation. Nature often inspires me, as does great literature. You can find inspiration in just about anything, really — looking out into a lake, watching a bird in flight, or reading a good book. Although I practice many hours, I find getting out into the world and experiencing life is very important in informing what I do in performance. 

Your new album, Lang Lang in Paris, comes out next month and shows off your deep love for Chopin, with the four Scherzi, and for Tchaikovsky with the Seasons suite. I love something you’ve said about the Tchaikovsky pieces, that they “have a kind of pain that he always turns into beauty." And it’s funny — I heard you play the Chopin Scherzi in concert last year, and I was struck by the way that you exploded the moments of pure joy in those pieces, in a way that most pianists do not. As you grow older and mature as an artist and a person, how does the balance of connecting with both the joy and the pain in music shift for you?

Music comes in and out of our lives at different points, and I don’t know if maturity changes the way I play, but I definitely have a different perspective as I grow older. I feel more personally connected to the lives of the composers; I often imagine different scenes or emotions that Tchaikovsky and Chopin were picturing as they wrote these works. The music on Lang Lang in Paris offers so many layers of emotion to discover over time. It is kind of like Paris itself – exploring and discovering the city takes a lifetime! 

Lang Lang rehearsing with Metallica for the 56th GRAMMY awards.One of the perks of being the biggest rock star of the classical world is having the opportunity to collaborate with an amazing range of musicians. You’ve performed with so many of the world’s great classical artists of course, but also with Metallica, Pharell Williams, Julio Iglesias, Herbie Hancock… What are some other musical partnerships that are still on your wish list? 

I have so much fun with these collaborations, and I would love to do more. Why not!? Music should be fun too! I’d love to work with Katy Perry, Beyonce, or Jay-Z – that would be a great time!

Lastly, the infamous On the Bench Questionnaire:

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice?

Generally I think about future repertoire and work through some of it, but I also use Czerny exercises to warm up. 

What's the last thing you do before you go onstage? 

I just take a deep breath, clear my head, and go!

If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which one would it be?

Definitely a recital by Mozart, Liszt, or Chopin. 

If you didn't play the piano, what would you do?  

I would be a comedy talk show host in my hometown, in our dialect of course!

Lara Downes Lara Downes is a critically acclaimed concert pianist praised as "a delightful artist with a unique blend of musicianship and showmanship" (NPR), and for her "loving attention to mood and color" (The New York Times) and "range of drama and nuance" (The Washington Post). You can follow her musical adventures and exploits at