Lang Lang: You can't compare Bach and Schoenberg, or Justin Timberlake and The Beatles

The pianist tells the Spectator his dazzling career was inspired by the Tom and Jerry Show – and that sometimes he has to fend off bad spirits

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

As Lang Lang walked from the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in November, a little girl emerged from the audience to embrace him. It was a disarming moment that seemed to symbolise the impact of the 31-year-old Chinese pianist. He has rock star appeal.

And then, for Lang Lang, the end was the beginning. Following three Mozart piano sonatas and four Chopin Ballades, he played six encores. After the third or fourth, he asked us, ‘Shall we keep going or shall we go home?’ A Cuban dance, a Chinese piece…When he finally finished with an explosion of Scriabin, thousands rose to their feet in recognition of his virtuosity.

I joined them, despite having been disappointed by his Mozart. Artur Schnabel’s playing of the A Minor sonata is hard to emulate, and Vladimir Horowitz’s performance of Chopin’s notoriously difficult Ballade 1 is mesmerising on YouTube.

Still, there is no doubt Lang Lang can play. Just listen to his Liszt. Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim work with him and he performs on the world’s biggest stages. In 2008, four billion people watched him at the Opening Ceremony of his hometown Olympics. And what makes the man from Beijing stand out almost as much as his whirring fingers are his charm and charisma.

Lang Lang is a phenomenon. His enthusiasm is irrepressible and it is impossible not to like him immediately. At the very end of the performance, he gave a giant bunch of flowers to the same tiny child. In China there are 50 million little girls and boys who play the piano. Many of them are said to have been inspired by Lang Lang.

Lang Lang himself was inspired to play aged two watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon on TV and hearing Tom play the ‘Cat Concerto’ — the ‘Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2’ by Franz Liszt. All his neighbours bought a piano for their children, he tells me when we meet the week before the concert. ‘If you didn’t play the piano, there was something wrong with you.’ How naturally did it come to him, though, as a Chinese child, playing Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven? ‘Mozart was not natural — when I was a kid. He’s a little hard to get the right idea. Beethoven was EXTREMELY difficult for me. To get the culture right was impossible — Beethoven particularly didn’t sound right.’

In contrast, the eastern European composers were a good fit. ‘Chopin was very easy for me, Liszt easy, Tchaikovsky great.’ Of the western/central European composers Bach was the only natural match — ‘I don’t need to be artificially doing something.’ He says his difficulties with the others are behind him now. ‘Living in the West for more than half of my life, growing up here, now it’s not a problem at all.’

Lang Lang has recently been exploring 20th-century classical music and has just recorded Bartok and Prokofiev with Rattle. He’s also collaborated with a rock drummer in New York — where he lives when he’s not in China — because he feels that 20th-century music has had a huge influence on hip-hop and rock’n’roll. He mimics the beat and the rhythm for me and claps his hands for emphasis.

Engaging with the 20th century has not, though, been straightforward. Webern, Berg and Schoenberg, for example, are ‘really intellectual but certainly not that easy to connect to emotionally. Mentally it’s already difficult, emotionally it’s even more so.’ But as he rehearsed the Berg clarinet sonata in Berlin, he was able to discover something new and interesting. He compares its surprising concepts to experiencing modern art.

You cannot, says Lang Lang, judge Bach and Schoenberg in the same way. ‘It’s another kind of art. We cannot say, “OK, let’s enjoy Justin Timberlake the same way as the Beatles.”’ Lang Lang does enjoy pop music — ‘Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Adele from the newer generation and then The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson’.

Lang Lang’s hands are like humming-birds at the keyboard. And yet he only practises two hours a day. He felt a lot of pressure from his father to succeed. The hardest playing years were from 6 to 15, and then from 15 to 20 there was ‘a big pressure to make a career’. He stopped worrying so much when it gradually became clear he would succeed professionally.

Is there a piece that frightens him today? ‘The worst thing you should think about is [getting] scared. Some pieces…maybe [I] worry more whether I can do it. Playing the hi-tech pieces, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev or Bartok, you need to be super-confident — “I can do it no problem. Of course it’s not a piece of cake but…I can do it.” Another trick is, don’t look at the keys when you’re doing those pieces. It’s the same as when you’re on top of the CN Tower in Toronto. DON’T LOOK DOWN.’ He laughs.

For Lang Lang, performance can be like a confession. ‘Sometimes you play a slow piece by Bach — “Oh, my God, I did something wrong, I was so bad to this person, I didn’t do this right.”’ He has to tell himself, ‘OK, let’s confess afterwards.’ At times, he says, he starts worrying that he didn’t lock the door to his apartment.

The night before a recital in Rome he watched a horror movie in his hotel. ‘I was playing Chopin, so the whole — oh, my goodness — the whole night this image comes in… “Don’t let it come!”’ He had to sing the melody to himself to keep it out. It’s like a really personal war, he says. ‘You’re on stage trying to concentrate and normally you get the bad spirit out, but sometimes it’s so strong it comes in…’

Does this mental warfare impact on his performances? ‘A little bit but not so much because I adjust and I let it go and just tell myself, focus, focus, FOCUS.’ Playing is, for Lang Lang, like swimming. ‘If you know how to swim you don’t really force yourself. Only at some turning points in the music you need to focus, like driving an aeroplane. The take-off is very important and then if you see some tornadoes or turbulence you maybe need to hold a little bit tighter. And a good, nice landing.’

Lang Lang’s mother usually travels with him wherever he plays and he drives her ‘nuts’. He’s too busy, he says, to get married at the moment. ‘Especially, with this schedule, to have a kid, the kid would be pretty crazy too!’ he explains, laughing. And it’s not just music that takes time. When he arrived at Heathrow he was greeted by a giant photo of himself on a billboard promoting his International Music Foundation. And worldwide fame led, in October, to the secretary-general Ban Ki-moon appointing him as a United Nations messenger for peace. Others include Barenboim and Stevie Wonder. ‘The aim for me,’ he says, ‘is global education.’

As for the country of his birth, he won’t be pressed on human rights. He says that today’s China has changed unrecognisably from that of his youth and that there isn’t any longer a major difference between New York, London and Beijing. ‘I don’t feel there’s such a big culture shock any more. When I was nine years old in Beijing it was like a little village compared to the West. But after the Olympic Games I found that the country had become much more connected. Half of my friends there are foreigners. My parents would never have believed Beijing could be like that.’ The big challenge now for China is the environment, he says, and the main problem in the northern cities is not factories but cars.

Lang Lang may not yet have mastered Mozart, but as China and America size each other up, the man who splits his time between the two could just become a symbol of a shared future.

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  • Born_In_Borneo

    First, let me get this off my chest.

    Just below the title of this article is “Matthew Stadlen 11 January 2014”. Where I am in California, it is 7:15 PM, Thursday, January 9, 2014. Where on earth is “11 January, 2014” right now?


    I do agree that many Chinese pianists can get most of Chopin’s music fairly correct even if they have not been exposed to the European cultures. Many poems in Tang Dynasty (唐诗), “verses” — a different type of poems — in Song Dynasty (宋词) and “ditties” in Yuan Dynasty (元曲) are very romantic, rich in imagination and very evocative. This is in most part due to Chinese characters. Many Chinese pianists can bring that feelings across when playing most of Chopin’s pieces.