Lang Lang finds balance between artistry and superstar status

By Lawrence Budmen

Lang Lang has emerged as the leading superstar of today’s classical-music world, yet clearly the 27-year-old Chinese pianist is also attempting to balance his high-profile celebrity with serious musical artistry.

There is the Lang Lang who performs in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and during the opening ceremonies of the Munich and Beijing Olympics. Then there is the keyboard wunderkind who dazzles concert goers with high-voltage performances of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff showpieces while broadening his repertoire to embrace the more subtle concertos of Mozart and Beethoven and the intimate world of chamber music.

Monday night the pianist plays Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts with conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra. An engagement at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach brings a repeat of the Prokofiev on Wednesday night, followed on Thursday afternoon by Mozart’s Concerto No. 17 in G Major, one of the rare times that Lang Lang will play a Mozart concerto in public.

The Concerto No. 17 is a beautiful, most inspired piece,” he says. “I learned a lot about Mozart from [recordings of] Clara Haskil, a great Mozart interpreter. His music is more operatic and vocal. Chopin is equally vocal.”

Lang Lang’s odyssey began with tumultuous years of study at the Beijing Conservatory under the watchful eye of an unyielding father who dreamed of stardom for his son. Lang Lang has chronicled the triumphs and disappointments of that time in his autobiography Journey of a Thousand Miles.

In 1996 at 14, he arrived in the United States to study at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute where his principal teacher was famed concert pianist Gary Graffman, then Curtis’ president.

“Graffman had studied with Vladimir Horowitz, one of the greatest pianists of all time,” Lang Lang says. “It was incredible to learn that romantic tradition from one master who had learned it from another.”

Lang Lang “was an absolutely major talent from the start,” Graffman says. “He was marvelous and made every score his own. He excelled in Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, was absolutely marvelous in the Chopin Etudes and Schumann Fantasy.”

Still, Graffman had to convince his young student to study and work seriously rather than just become an overachiever who would burn out quickly, winning numerous competitions but having a short-term career.

“Lang Lang was used to the old-fashioned Chinese method of teaching,” Graffman says. “Here he was exposed to different points of view with strong emphasis on the Russian and German traditions because our faculty comes from varied backgrounds, and when he played chamber works, he worked with string professors as well.”

As Graffman had predicted, the young pianist’s big opportunity was as a substitute. Lang Lang made his debut at 17 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival when he stepped in on short notice to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 for the ailing Andre Watts and striking sparks
with audience and critics.

Graffman says the pianist subsequently gave a private performance of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (a work he has yet to play in public) for conductor Daniel Barenboim, who then became a enthusiastic advocate and mentor. Engagements with major orchestras and recitals at high-profile festivals and concert halls followed.

Still, not everyone has been impressed.  Some critics remain ambivalent even as Lang Lang has attempted to expand his repertoire and shed his image as a power-pounding dynamo. In his 2008 review of a Beethoven concerto, Steve Smith wrote in The New York Times that the pianist’s “excessive speed and affected dynamic contrasts . . . rendered Beethoven a foppish boor.”

Better received was a  recent recording of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky trios with violinist Vadim Repin and cellist Mischa Maisky, his first recorded foray into chamber music.

“I want to do more chamber music and have residencies, but I need the perfect collaboration,” Lang Lang says. “While I enjoy working with great musicians, I need time to know the person. Otherwise, the performance just becomes competition.”

Eschenbach … a distinguished concert pianist before he took up the baton … is one of the musicians who inspires the young artist. Lang Lang characterizes him as “a miracle pianist. He has the most sensitive touch, and his approach is so spiritual. Eschenbach brings the most beautiful feeling to Schumann and Mozart.”

Lang Lang has also been coached by Barenboim, who, he says, takes a more analytical view, “always defining [the music’s] structure before dealing with its emotional content.”

Other artistic heroes are pianists with strong interpretive profiles.  “I love Arthur Rubinstein for the quality of his phrasing and harmonic interpretation and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli whose Ravel and Scarlatti are unique. . . . And Ilove to listen to Martha Argerich,” the reclusive Argentinian master who gave a rareperformance in Miami in 2007.

As an ambassador for UNICEF, Lang Lang toured Africa where he became particularly concerned about the poor villages in which he performed. Earlier this month he packed Carnegie Hall for a UNICEF benefit for children who were victims of the Haiti earthquake, performing with Eschenbach, the touring orchestra and Wyclef Jean. The Lang Lang International Music Foundation promotes large-scale music education programs in China.

Graffman is not concerned that his former student will become sidetracked by such high-profile projects or the glow of celebrity.

“He handles it well. In fact, he flourishes on it. Lang Lang is highly intelligent and can learn scores quickly even while he has these other projects.

“He brings tremendous charisma to an audience without making musical compromises and brings people to concert halls who have never attended a performance. We need that.”

Lang Lang performs with the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach 8 p.m.. Monday at the Arsht Center in Miami and 8 p.m. Wednesday and 2 p.m. Thursday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.,

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Thu Mar 25, 2010
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