Guest pianist Lang Lang's star is rising
All of these have become routine occurrences in an extraordinary career that began with Lang as a child prodigy in northeast China and now includes performances all over the world.
Sometimes, though, the answer is harder to see, such as when Lang is tempted to experiment with new technology, form promotional partnerships or perform music that doesn't quite fit inside classical boundaries, all of which he's done lately. In these instances, Lang tries to take the long view.
"If it hurts music, you don't do it," says the 26-year-old native of Shenyang by phone from a hotel room in Orange County, Calif. "But if it's just that not everyone will like it, you need to look at the long term. You need to find a balance."
Whether Lang ultimately gives a project the thumbs-up or thumbs-down so far has hinged primarily on one thing: whether the effort will attract new listeners.
That rule goes for everything from Lang's diverse body of classical and film-score recordings with Deutsche Grammophon and his new autobiography, "Journey of a Thousand Miles," to his shoe deal with Adidas and recent appearance on "Tonight" with Jay Leno.
Foremost in his mind, he says, is a desire to create new fans of classical music out of people who weren't necessarily exposed to it at an early age.
If that means projecting video of his fast-flying hands onto a giant screen during solo recitals, so be it, even if it evokes what Lang calls a "huge backlash" from traditionalists.
Lang also has been criticized for his general music-making, with some considering his gestures at the keyboard excessively dramatic and his performance style more technically accomplished than artistically profound.
"I believe classical music is good for young people," Lang says, speaking animatedly about a subject clearly of great interest to him.
"It opens another dimension to their lives, and they need that. They should know this great music and enjoy it, rather than get bored with it. . . . The good news is, it's working. I see lots of young people now."
There was more good news for Lang's main cause in August, when the pianist, following in the footsteps of several great classical artists before him, took part in an Olympics opening ceremony, this year in his native land.
Following his Beijing performance, which involved a young child and dually symbolized China's Yellow River and music's power to unite, Lang learned the event had been viewed by more than 34 million people, according to figures from NBC.
"I was really shocked by it," Lang says, referring to the size of the audience. "I'm very lucky that they invited me. I loved the concept."
As for this weekend, Lang says he suffered no mental anguish in deciding whether to join the Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Most to perform Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. The piece fills out a program that includes Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and Jacques Ibert's "Escales."
Lang has collaborated with Welser-Most on several occasions, and says it will be a "wonderful privilege" to do so again, especially at Severance Hall, an acoustical environment he describes as a "fairy-tale world" in which every note "really goes flying."
"Everything he thinks, he will say right away, what I need to do and what I need to improve," Lang says. "We always have a very good emotional level and chemistry, and in that hall, you don't need to push so hard. The sound automatically comes."
Working with the orchestra is also a special experience, Lang says. That's high praise coming from a pianist whose schedule includes regular visits with most of the world's leading ensembles, including the Vienna Philharmonic, with which he recently recorded the Chopin concertos.
"You can hear that style right away," Lang says of the Cleveland. "That's very rare, these days, especially in America, to have that wonderful, clear, emotional and colorful sound."
In addition to the potential for new listeners, one important factor that often influences Lang's decision-making process is time. Lang says he often turns down projects or events simply because he's weary of being on the road.
Not a problem here. Although Lang is in the midst of hectic fall touring schedule, this week in Cleveland won't be hard on his spirit. If anything, it should help replenish it, he says.
The pianist, a Chinese citizen with a U.S. green card, is bringing along his mother -- not the demanding father described at length in his book -- and plans to his spend his time outside rehearsal and performance experiencing Lake Erie and visiting with musical colleagues around Northeast Ohio.
"You need a ground, as a musician and as a human being," Lang says. "Otherwise, you lose a lot of the normal abilities. It's very difficult to have a life, to go back to being a normal person."