About to turn 30, Lang Lang looks to new challenges

By David Fleshler

Lang Lang will perform a recital of Bach, Chopin and Schubert Thursday night at the Arsht Center in Miami. Photo: Felix Broede/Deutsche Grammophon

Lang Lang was late for the telephone interview, having been busy at Carnegie Hall preparing for an upcoming recital. His mission at the hallowed concert hall: Choosing the right piano.

Although the celebrated Chinese pianist has long been identified with Steinways — even to the point of having the company produce a special children’s model named for him  — each Steinway is different, and the requirements of each program vary.  So before a recital, he sits down to test drive the two, three or four pianos available.

“I need a big personality as a piano,” said Lang Lang, who performs a recital Thursday evening at the Arsht Center in Miami. “The piano needs to have the ability to produce different range of colors. It can’t be just beautiful sound or just loud sounds. We need to have a combination of all kinds of sounds in the same piano. It’s very challenging.”

Lang Lang’s usual routine is to take the competing instruments through 250 years of keyboard music, often relying for assistance on a piano technician. “Normally I try the pieces that I perform. I do that first. Then you try the Goldberg Variations by Bach or you try some Brahms Intermezzi or you try some big Romantic pieces — Liszt or Rachmaninoff — or you play a little bit of Bartók to try the percussive sounds.”

It is a solitary activity, and reflects his continued commitment to the fundamentals of his art, despite the Today show appearances, collaborations with pop musicians, ceremonial performances at huge events such as the Beijing Olympics and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, and an expanding range of philanthropic activities.

Lang Lang, who celebrates his 30th birthday next month, has already achieved as much stardom as any classical performer in a generation. He performs with the world’s greatest orchestras in the great halls, releases recordings regularly and has begun using his name and his success to support projects in which he believes, such as educating the next generation of musicians.

“Obviously I would like to keep playing with the best orchestras, best recital halls around the world, like what I’m doing now,” he said. “But in the same time, I’m also thinking how to do more work with UNICEF that I have a long-term relationship with as an ambassador. And then I’m also starting to work with the World Wildlife Fund, which is protecting the animals.”

He is most eager to talk about the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, an organization he founded to educate and encourage young pianists around the world through master classes, mentoring and massive performance projects called “101 Pianists,” held in various countries.

“Our aim is to help new generation of artists to achieve their musical dreams,” he said. “We have a hundred kids from different communities to get together side-by-side, four hands, one piano. And then they will play with me in the end of their working session. So I come and then play Schubert or play Brahms or Beethoven, for a hundred pianists. We’ve been already in many cities around the world. We’ve been twice in San Francisco, twice in London and next month in Berlin.”

For his recital in Miami, Lang Lang will fly direct from an engagement in Montreal. While in town, he will practice two hours a day, beginning with scales and then moving on to pieces that he’s working on. Currently he’s studying Richard Strauss’s Burleske and all four of Chopin’s Ballades. And he’ll take some time off.

“Miami is such a beautiful city so I have to spend some time on the beach,” he said. “So I think to come to Miami it’s nice to breathe some fresh air from the ocean.”

Lang Lang’s choosiness about pianos is typical of concert pianists, said James Barron, a reporter for The New York Times and author of the book Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand, who will give a pre-concert talk an hour before Lang Lang’s Arsht Center performance.

“They don’t travel with pianos much anymore,” he said. “They depend on the technician to give them the little bit of extra speed or little bit of extra oomph. You never tune, voice or regulate a piano for Vladimir Horowitz the way you would tune, voice and regulate it for Arthur Rubinstein, and you probably wouldn’t do one for Lang Lang the way you would for Yuja Wang. It is a very individual thing.”

Liz Wallace, the Arsht Center’s assistant vice president for programming, said the hall will make various pianos available for him to try. “On the afternoon of the recital, we will have a piano selection for him,” she said. “One will be a piano he’s played before.”

His program — the same one he performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago last Saturday and will perform later this month at Carnegie Hall — consists of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, and Chopin’s 12 Etudes Op. 25. He feels particularly close to the Chopin Etudes, he said. He has played them since he was 10, and one of the milestones of his early career was a performance of the complete Etudes at the age of 13 in Beijing.

“They’re very beautiful, and it’s real, real artwork,” he said. “Because you have 12 different kind of characters, and somehow it’s very important to play those pieces to get the personalities of those etudes. And for me, Chopin Etudes are not exercise etudes. It’s more about music-making.”

Lang Lang performs 8 p.m. Thursday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts Knight Concert Hall. www.arshtcenter.org, 305-949-6722

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Mon May 14, 2012
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