Sunday, 7 September 2008


This article was written following the press conference given by Lang Lang on 29 October 2007 in conjunction with the Singapore Sun Festival 2007.

One of the most extravagantly talented young musicians of our time is the 25-year-old Chinese pianist Lang Lang. He gave the final concert of the Singapore Sun Festival on 30 October 2007, his first solo recital in Singapore and the only sold-out event of the fortnight-long festival.

His larger-than-life stage presence is mirrored by a bubbly and boyish offstage personality that sought to create a sensation. Attired in a black shirt, grey jacket with loud tyre-track markings and black scarf (in sunny Singapore?), he looked more the part of a matinee idol than the proverbial artist struggling with his art. With the media lapping up his every word and nuance, he was articulate in both English and Mandarin, ensuring a short but lively publicity session.

Lang Lang has just celebrated 20 years as a performer by playing at the recent Beijing International Festival ten popular piano concertos, including those by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. As if avoiding self-congratulation, he was quick to acknowledge his collaborators, reading like a Who’s Who of the conducting fraternity – Daniel Barenboim, Charles Dutoit, Christoph Eschenbach and the dynamo of Western classical music in China, Yu Long.

With a cheeky glint in his eye, he related a curious incident that took place at the festival. As he was preparing to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17, the orchestra launched itself into the tutti introduction of Piano Concerto No.24 instead. As it was then impossible to get new scores for the orchestra, he played the latter – a work that he had not touched for two years - from memory! “There was quite a bit of improvisation involved, and just the right time to write a new cadenza,” he confessed with a smile. Then he added, “Perhaps I’ll play 20 concertos when I celebrate my 40th anniversary ….and 40 concertos at the 80th anniversary!”

“So what concerto would you like me to play?” he turned the table and quizzed his attentive audience of media personnel. Hands go up and one journo offers him Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto. “That’s such a short piece!” he sniggered, almost with a sense of incredulity. What chutzpah, but one that has served him well so far.

Learning new works, from outside the established canon, proved little problem for the young maestro. In July, he premiered a new concerto by British film composer Nigel Hess, commissioned by Prince Charles in memory of the Queen Mother.

Earlier in 2005, Lang learnt British composer Sir Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto from scratch and performed it with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis. “It was inspired by Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, a work I have played for many years. It does not matter who the composer is, I will play it as long as it is great music,” he said. He is due to play it again in late 2007, this time as part of the English conductor’s 80th birthday celebrations. At this point, he paused and with a high voice and faux English accent, made an imitation of Sir Colin. “What a cute fellow!” he declared.

About his long-time teacher, the Russian-American pianist Gary Graffman at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, he considers a lifelong friend and mentor. “Many teachers want their students to be carbon copies of themselves, but not Graffman. He has an individual vision for each of his students. He helped me build my repertoire, and taught me how to make friends, and how keep up with them,” he fondly recounted. These days, he receives tutelage from no less than Daniel Barenboim. (A recorded masterclass with Lang Lang playing a Beethoven sonata may be found in the complete Beethoven sonata cycle on DVD, issued by EMI Classics)

Lang also relishes his role as an ambassador for UNICEF. About his experience in Tanzania, he shared, “I saw a young boy with HIV, and was touched when he said he wanted to become a musician. This completely changed my worldview, and that there were more important things to life than being a pianist.”

After his most recent CD of Beethoven concertos on Deutsche Grammophon, the two Chopin concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta beckon. This will be his final recording with DG under the current contract. Will he renew? “We shall see…” was a cryptic reply. One wonders who needs who more in this high stakes world of recorded music.

Inevitably the subject of fellow-Chinese pianist, close contemporary and DG recording artist Li Yundi was brought up. Were they friends or rivals? There was a short pause for thought before his extremely diplomatic reply, “I would like to know him better. I wish him all the best in his career, while I focus on what I do best.”

The press conference than broke up into individual sessions of interviews and photo-shoots. Faced with a tiny mountain of CD sleeves and photos to autograph, “This is my favourite kind of interview!” he chirped. One has to hand it to Lang Lang, this young man certainly has charisma.

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