Lang Lang's quest for supremacy
I knew Lang was making a point about the piece, a new Tan Dun concerto that, as he told me, includes lots of fiery percussive music. But his gesture also looked a lot like what Tiger Woods does after sinking a particularly difficult putt.
I'm pretty sure Lang, who was seen by more than a billion people during the broadcast opening of the Beijing Olympics, wouldn't mind the comparison to one of his idols. He told me that he sometimes thinks about Woods's power and control while coursing through a difficult score by Rachmaninoff or Liszt.
Michael Jordan often comes to mind when he's racing up the keyboard in octaves, the way Jordan used to storm up the court for a slam dunk.
Chinese pianist Lang Lang. (Simon Hayter for The Globe and Mail)
Lang has wanted to be that kind of champion for as long as he can remember. When he was a boy, he practised piano with "a mantra, sometimes repeated under my breath and sometimes repeated silently... Number One, Number One, Number One."
That's from Journey of a Thousand Miles, Lang's newly published autobiography (with David Ritz). In it, we learn that Lang dropped out of kindergarten so he could practise more, and still put in almost seven hours a day after reluctantly registering for Grade 1. Whenever his drive flagged, he was forced onward by his fiercely determined father, who quit his job as a policeman to supervise his son's piano labours.
In the book's most memorable scene, Lang senior flies into a rage when his son misses two hours of practice. He thrusts a bottle of pills at his son and orders him to commit suicide.
When I met him in his dressing room, it seemed hard to believe that this energetic 26-year-old in the black hoodie and jeans had slaved his childhood away in a Beijing tenement. But I also remembered the first time I saw him in action at Roy Thomson Hall, with the China Philharmonic, scampering through Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as if making up for the games he didn't get to play as a kid.
His very personal quest for supremacy has borne fruit just when people seem to be looking for symbols of China's new-found dominance in the world. He's this era's equivalent of Van Cliburn, the American pianist who personified American power in the fifties; though unlike Cliburn, Lang has not let success prevent him from absorbing more repertoire, even while he dashes from one concert to the next.
He's in fairly constant motion around the world, though this week he's based in Toronto for what he and the TSO are calling a guest residency. He'll play two different programs with the orchestra (Wednesday and Saturday, both sold out), and a solo recital on Friday at Thomson Hall. He's also making several appearances around town, and will run a master class on Sunday at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto.
Three concertos and a solo recital seems like a lot in one week, especially when one of the concertos is still in flux. On Monday, he had just received some faxed revisions from Tan Dun, for the piece he'll present for the first time at RTH this evening.
"He wrote it customized for me," he said. "I like a lot of beautiful melodies, and really interesting rhythms. Tan Dun thinks I'm a kung fu master of the piano." He made a few martial arts gestures with his hands, which were seldom still while he spoke. His legs were also in nearly constant motion, as if he were in a hurry to get somewhere even while sitting.
"I don't want this piece to be only for 10 per cent of the population," he said, coming to the nub of the issue. "I want this to be a hit. And that's what Tan Dun wanted also."
In China, Lang is a hitmaker whose stardom reaches well beyond the classical scene, which itself is more dynamically engaged with mainstream culture than it is here. His product endorsements are as eagerly sought-after as those of any movie star. But he has no intention of following popularity wherever it leads (unlike, say, pop-classical flutist James Galway). Being popular seems like a tool that he wants to exploit for the sake of the music he loves best.
"No matter what you do with the Olympics and podcasts and all that stuff, the idea in the end is to bring people into the concert hall, to hear a real concert in a real concert hall," he said. The aim is to get them to listen to canonic composers such as Beethoven and Chopin (whose concertos appear on a new Lang Lang disc with Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic), and to a very short list of moderns that includes Bartok and Prokofiev.
Lang says he really started to understand those composers only when he moved to the United States at the age of 16 to become a student at Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute. It was while studying with Gary Graffman (himself a student of Vladimir Horowitz) that Lang "really fell in love with music, not with the piano, but with music." He told me he began to cotton on to Mozart's style only at the age of 20, when he performed sonatas four-hands with Christoph Eschenbach. And he's still learning from his latest teacher and mentor, Daniel Barenboim.
"In China, people work really hard, you can hear that, but because we don't have so many great teachers there, the people sometimes don't understand the music," Lang said, talking about the students he encounters but also, maybe describing his own past situation. "They just play the notes. They have a good feeling about it, but there's no style. ... In the West, mostly they understand well, but they don't play so well. The students think a lot, and they even make an argument with you, but they can't deliver. They need to learn how to deliver with their hands."
In the end, that's what it comes down to: Can you deliver the piece? Lang has been criticized for promoting himself too much, even in his performances, but as we spoke I detected a completely different attitude. I think Lang Lang has learned humility, and is still doing so. He may be No. 1 in one sense, but he seems to know that the only game worth playing is the one in which the composer always comes first.
For more information on Lang Lang's Toronto residency, see http://www.tso.on.ca/langlang.