Once the boy wonder of classical music, superstar pianist Lang Lang now tempers his flamboyant virtuosity with a new-found intellectual rigour, and is devoting more energy to his educational foundation.
One of the most famous classical musicians in the world today – and certainly one the best-known concert pianists – Lang Lang, who took up the instrument at the age of three and was performing and winning competitions just two years later, is, at the age of 37, something of a phenomenon. Named by Time magazine in 2009 as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, he’s played for princes, presidents and prime ministers, and has been repeatedly praised not only for his absolute mastery of his chosen instrument, but also for his tireless efforts as an educator and populariser of classical music, which can only be described as evangelical.
Born in the northern Chinese industrial city of Shenyang in 1982, as a child he was driven mercilessly by his policeman father, who’d decided that his son would become the greatest classical musician in the country. In the event – and after one major hiccup when, at the age of nine, he was told by his then teacher that he’d never make it as a concert pianist – he achieved much more than that. In his mid-teens he and his father left the Beijing slum where they’d been living and moved to the United States. Lang Lang enrolled at the famous Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and, two years later, burst on to the international stage after standing in with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a sick André Watts.
Since then he’s lived like a rock star, hobnobbing with rappers and superstars of sport, with whose lifestyles he often identifies. Known initially for his dazzling technique and deeply emotional interpretations of the romantic repertoire, including works by Chopin, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, he’s also collaborated with jazz musicians such as Herbie Hancock, the singer-songwriter Billy Joel and even the rock bank Metallica, as well as recording music for the video game Gran Turismo 5.
An injury to his left arm in 2017 threatened to destroy his career and kept him from performing for more than a year; his return to the stage has seen him exploring the more cerebral side of his prodigious talent by focussing on rigorously intellectual works, such as Bach’s Goldberg Variations. And last year his life took another change of direction when he married the German-Korean pianist Gina Alice Redlinger; the couple divide their time between homes in Beijing, Paris and New York.
In Hong Kong for a private performance earlier this year, Lang Lang found time to sit for an exclusive photo shoot with Prestige, talking to everyone and delighting them with his easy charm and self-deprecatory humour. Although now nearer 40 than 30, he brimmed with an enthusiasm that can only be called boyish, revealing himself to be a born communicator and talking at length – and in an accent located midway in the Pacific between China and North America – about his educational foundation and its aim to spread a knowledge and love of music to young people around the world.
When you look back on your life, does it surprise you how far you’ve come and where you find yourself now?
Yeah, it’s a major surprise actually. I always dreamed when I was a kid of having a good career, a good life as an artist, and I’m fortunate to have achieved that. It wasn’t easy – it was very challenging – but at the end of the day I was lucky, because I made my career and that dream has turned into something even more exciting. After growing a little older I’m doing even more exciting things, so yes, it’s been quite a surprise.
Was there a time when you thought you wouldn’t achieve your ambition to become a concert pianist?
It’s what I always thought I was going to do in my life, although there were two periods when I had second thoughts. When I was nine years old I thought that I’d probably never make it, after my teacher in Beijing basically fired me [laughs] – I thought then that maybe I didn’t have a chance. The second time was just after I arrived in America, and found there were so many talented pianists that it was difficult to get started in my professional career. Competitions are one thing, but a real professional career is quite another. At that time I also had some doubts, that it would be hard to achieve what I wanted, to be a world-class musician, that maybe before I got there I’d be buried! I wouldn’t say I felt like giving up – well, when I gave up for three months when I was nine, I really was giving up – but the second time, although I was still quite positive, I was thinking that if I couldn’t make it, there would have to be an alternative. And then somehow I got this big break, someone got sick (laughs), and that’s how I got my career going.
Were there any particular pieces of music that inspired you to become a pianist?
This year I recorded the Piano Book [in which] about 80 per cent of the pieces are the ones that I was practising as a kid, like the Mozart “Twinkle Twinkle” [Ah, Vous Dirai-Je Maman], the Bach minuet, Beethoven’s Für Elise, Czerny Études, the Clementi Sonatina – and there are even some Chinese folk tunes – so those are the main memories of me as a boy, practising all the time and bothering the neighbours!
Have these pieces stayed with you throughout your career as part of your repertoire, which you go back to all the time?
Yes, like the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, Chopin waltzes and nocturnes, Beethoven sonatas certainly, and Mozart, a lot of Mozart pieces, because when you’re really young you’re not afraid of playing Mozart – though obviously it doesn’t sound that good because Mozart is so precise, and as a kid it’s really hard to play it at a high level. So most of the Mozart sonatas I’ve had to re-learn, again and again. This year, for me the main focus – the main challenge – is Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Those are also pieces I learned when I was 11 or 12, inspired by [the brilliant and somewhat eccentric Canadian pianist] Glenn Gould. So there are some pieces that you have to prepare for many years before you record them, like the last few Beethoven sonatas, which you wouldn’t record when you’re 12! It would be ridiculous. But Chopin Études can be very nice if you record it at 12 or 13 years old, because technically you’re already playing pretty fast and pretty accurately.
Did you grow up in the public spotlight and was that difficult?
Not so much, actually. When you start young you need to have a big heart. If you’re very fragile then you’ll always get hurt, emotionally. I was lucky that I started quite early. In the beginning I was quite good, but by the time I reached a certain age I never felt I was the best – I thought I was the challenger. Some kids are already starting to concertise as professionals at 12 or 13 years old, playing 70 to 100 concerts a year, and are already making recordings for the top four record companies (then it was the top six, now it’s four) and I was looking at those kids and obviously I admired them. But I hadn’t started playing internationally at 13 or 14, not like the real child prodigies. So in a way I am sort of a child prodigy in the regional sense (laughs), but I wasn’t so well known internationally.
Even when I got to America there were a few kids ahead of me, who were already making record deals and playing with the New York Philharmonic. By the time I really started my career I was already 17 or 18, so I’d had three years of not performing a lot. I gave maybe only 20 concerts, and those were more like practising, like warming up in churches or playing in Longview Texas, or Nebraska, which was good because I’d started to build up my repertoire. So when I began my real career, I was already equipped with a lot of new repertoire. In that way I was fortunate, because if I’d started concertising internationally at eight or 13 and making record deals, I think I wouldn’t have been ready and I could have burned out in a short time.
You must have had a pretty brutal schedule in your 20s.
The scheduling was crazy. Now I look back and I see that I was at my busiest between the age of 20 to 30. But I’m happy now because for the last five years I’m no longer the busiest pianist! It’s fantastic; this is a real achievement! I wasn’t doing so much recording, but I was doing about 125 concerts a year, sometimes even more. It’s like being an NBA star or a player in the European Champions League – you have to play in your national league, national cup and European cup and you also have to play for your national team.
How does your schedule now compare to before? You had an injury to your arm and you came back…
… a year and a half ago. Now I try to make my scheduling, say, Asia 30 percent, Europe 30 percent, the US 30 percent and another 10 percent elsewhere. I now perform about 80 a year. It’s still quite a lot. It’s not easier, but with fewer concerts there is more balance.
Let’s talk about the Lang Lang foundation.
I established it in 2008. It’s something I always dreamed about. When I was a kid, I not only wanted to realise myambitions but to help some of my friends achieve theirs. There were a lot of kids growing up with me who were also very talented but sometimes they lacked opportunities, good teachers and a good environment. I was always trying to support them, because we all had the same dream – of being a musician.
So in 2008 – that was the Olympics year in Beijing when I played at the opening, which was a bit overwhelming, as it was probably my first milestone career jump – I thought that maybe I could use this as a platform to do something. We had help from Grammy Foundation, Carnegie Hall and a few major banks at the foundation’s grand opening. At our first fund-raiser we reached US$1.3 million, so we were able to start finding the best young pianists around the world and provide them with scholarships. We teamed up with Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall and the Musikverein in Vienna to give them the opportunity to perform. And with the help of Oxford, Juilliard and the Royal College of Music we built up this network to train them.
In America, most public schools don’t have music classes. First, there’s not enough funding, so the first things they cut are the arts and music. Second thing is that the way of learning music in the past was very academic – you read the note and sang a line. But today, because of new technology, like smartphones, smart pianos and smart methods, you can learn music in a much more casual and more direct way.
Music is like language. If you only listen but don’t talk it’s not so much fun – it’s like a computer without the internet. You have to be inside the music. Our new way is what we call the Keys of Inspiration music class, where every child has a keyboard and a tablet device in front of them. The teacher is like a DJ, with headphones on, and says, “OK, I want the first piano to do this and I want the second piano to do that,” so it’s like building up a piano orchestra. The way they learn is like playing games – children get much more involved and think, “I can do it, this is easy!” It’s fun, which is what music is supposed to be. Everything also costs less. You can wire it up with classrooms in India or Russia, so in a way we can involve everybody with no transportation costs. Now we have 70 schools worldwide.
You’re now playing a lot more Goldberg Variations, Mozart, etc.
Yes, I wanted to broaden my repertoire but I’ll still play Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. For me the challenge is not just … well I know how fast I can play and how powerfully I can play, but my goal is to play the more intellectual pieces. It’s nothing to do with whether I’m capable or not, it’s more that I prefer to move in that direction. But I’ll continue to play the romantic repertoire, too – that will never change.
You recently got married. How has that changed your life?
For the better. In a way it’s become more stable. It’s a new beginning, another start. It’s great, when you’re married to the right person and at the right time. It required a lot of thought – it’s not a decision you can make just like that, and I think I’m fortunate to have made the right decision. Since I now have a family I have more life outside of music than before. And during my recent one-year-and-three-month break I had a lot of family time. I just stayed home, enjoyed a cup of tea and talked about life!
Photography Ricky Lo
Art Direction Sepfry Ng
Hair and Make-up Kidd Sun
Photography Assistant West Ng
Styling Assistant Lau Bo
Location The Gentry Club, K11 Musea