August 3, 2008

Flame Carriers Big Day for the Little Emperor


Four more classical stars from China Virtuoso pianist or 'flashy' showman? On Friday, millions of people can decide for themselves as Lang Lang performs at the Olympic opening ceremony

Love him - or loathe him? I actually quite like Lang Lang, who, as China's pre-eminent classical pianist, is now flamboyantly girdling the globe. Having interviewed him several times over the past few years, I've watched his metamorphosis from callow youth to debonair fashionability. He's a creature of instinct, not intellect, for whom posing and playing are indivisible: he'll be absolutely in his element when he launches the Olympics with a display of virtuosity in Tiananmen Square. But interviews are for him awkward affairs, to be got through quick: no time to lose in this whirlwind career punctuated by recording sessions with Cecilia Bartoli and Plcido Domingo, and stadium duets with Andrea Bocelli.

Representing Audi and Mont Blanc, he's now the apex of an ever- growing marketing pyramid, and he's reinforcing his status as a Steinway artist by launching a children's piano now being aggressively promoted in his homeland. The prototype was auctioned in Beijing in aid of Unicef's programme to help children with Aids in Yunnan. Lang Lang loves his work as a Unicef ambassador: "I'm good with kids, because I'm really just a big kid myself," he once told me with a laugh.

Born in 1982, Lang Lang was brought up by self-sacrificing parents as a quintessential "little emperor". His musician father, Guo- ren Lang, was by all accounts a ferocious taskmaster to the son who apparently had a special reaction to music, even at one month old. "He was a happy child with an open mind," he explained to an American interviewer.

According to Lang Lang himself, the first music that took root in his mind was a Mozart sonata he fell in love with when he was two. His parents bought him a cheap Chinese piano, on which he began replicating the tunes he heard on television. At five, he won a competition with a piece by Liszt plus that Mozart sonata: the video shows that in order to reach the pedals he had to play standing up, which didn't affect the sureness of his delivery.

He played the complete Chopin etudes at 13, and won the Tchaikovsky junior competition in Japan with Chopin's E minor concerto. That work has always meant a lot to him, he says, "though at 13 I was too young to understand the pathos of Chopin's love for that girl, which she didn't return. My father told me not to think about the emotional situation, just to think about a beautiful landscape - and about my mother! That worked very well." Chopin chimes perfectly with what he now describes as his crusade: he's always trying to reach young audiences, "and Chopin is the perfect composer for that. His music is so universal that even people who don't like classical music like it."

Lang Lang's career in the West began thanks to his admission to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia: an audition for conductor Christoph Eschenbach led to his being invited to play the Tchaikovsky concerto under Isaac Stern. And since then, music's Olympians have queued to be his patrons. It was touching to see how maternally the great pianist Martha Argerich treated him at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland last summer. Daniel Barenboim, who regularly coaches him, describes him as "extraordinarily talented". What does he see as his challenge with this pupil? "To make him see how to structure it all, without sacrificing anything." That figures: Lang Lang's performance of Schumann's "Fantasie Opus 17" in Verbier last year showed little grasp of its complex architecture.

When I proffer that criticism to the pianist, he airily replies that he "can play it much better than that", and that Verbier's makeshift auditorium was to blame. I ask how he reacts to the critical onslaughts he regularly endures - "flashy" etc - but he is unabashed. "That's fine - it shows they care." Does he accept any of the negative criticisms? "No. Because I am who I am. People can write what they want. When I was younger, I did take criticism seriously but it made things worse, because once you compromise your art, you lose yourself." Ask him how he rates his exact coeval Yundi Li - whose aristocratic way with Chopin has won worldwide acclaim - and you get a very firm no comment: little emperors countenance no rivals.

The DVD Dragon Songs shows him asserting his dominance back home. We see him going back to his birthplace, giving master classes and being fted on a heroic scale, with four orchestras plus 100 female pianists hammering their Steinways in time with his epic rendition of "Yellow River Concerto". But his allegiance to the music of his homeland is more than skin-deep: he no longer plays chamber music with his erhu-playing father - "he is now too tired" - but he makes a point of including contemporary Chinese works in his recitals, and will play some at the Olympics.

Lang Lang may be a one-off, but at the same time he's a symptom of the biggest cross-fertilisation Western classical music has ever known. It's now a truism to say that the future of Western classical music lies in the East: rural China may still be untouched by it, but in the cities, symphony orchestras and concert halls are multiplying every year. Watching a class at the Beijing Conservatory led by Guo Shuzhen, China's top voice professor, I tap into a strand of history going way back: she was one of the elite musicians sent by Mao to study at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1950s.

But the real beginning of China's love affair with Western classical music was in 1601, when an Italian Jesuit sailed into Beijing with the present of a clavichord for the emperor, who was intrigued enough to encourage other Jesuits to install church organs and set up string ensembles. Missionaries, traders and diplomats continued this musical imperialism, but what gave Western music its lift-off was the influx of Russian refugees after the Bolshevik Revolution. The Communists first smiled on their home-grown "Western" musicians, then persecuted them for championing the music of capitalism. Only when Western music was deemed to symbolise modernity did they smile on it once more.

But for Western classical music to put down roots in China, major musicians will need to settle there, and whether Lang Lang becomes one of those, or whether he stays in international orbit, is a moot point. My guess is the latter, given his addiction to the limelight: his YouTube stunts include playing Chopin's "Black Key Etude" with an orange.

Would he play in Tibet? "Yeah, they have already invited me." What is his view of the political situation there? He sighs: "I really wish we could find a solution." Will he comment on the Chinese government's erasure of "democracy" from the internet? "I see that the Western cultural system works very well, but I don't know if it would work in China. The Cultural Revolution ended only six years before I was born - it's not that far away. And from then till today we're already doing pretty well. I think the day will come when the Chinese internet will allow 'democracy', but that's my personal view. People don't like to be forced - that only increases the hate."

What's the next big trick? "I have written an autobiography - in English - which will be published in 12 languages." What's the title? "A Journey of a Thousand Miles." Why? "Because I'm travelling all the time." Subtitle? "'My story." What are the first words? "When I was nine years old, I moved to Beijing." Now 26, he has indeed come a long way since.8

Read the full version of Michael Church's interview with Lang Lang in this month's issue of 'BBC Music Magazine', on sale now. The magazine comes free with a CD of the Gershwin and Ravel "Piano Concertos"


Yundi Li

This 26-year-old pianist won the Warsaw Chopin Competition at 19 and declared that he wanted to become 'the next Zimerman'. Krystian Zimerman turned him down as a pupil, claiming there was nothing more he could teach him

Wu Qian

The same age as Lang Lang and Yundi Li, Wu Qian is emerging as China's top female pianist and garnering golden reviews in London. Shanghai-born, trained at the Menuhin School and the Royal Academy, she plays Liszt, Schumann and Prokofiev with rare distinction

Liping Zhang

Beijing Conservatory's prize soprano, who divides her time between home, New York and London, where Raymond Gubbay made her a star at the Royal Albert Hall a decade ago

Marc Yu

Duetting with Lang Lang - who has dubbed him 'little Mozart' - in Prom No 60 later this month, this nine-year-old prodigy may burn out - or become the next Bill Gates - but his progress should be fascinating to watch

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