He is a prodigy, of that there is no doubt. But it is Lang Lang’s zeal for his craft, not simply his talent, that has rendered him a musician of exceptional calibre.
On Saturday, the 30 year-old pianist from the industrial city of Shenyang in northeast China will be the headline act at the National Arts Centre’s annual gala. A day earlier, he held a master class with young musicians in Ottawa – part of his ongoing mission to foster the same driving enthusiasm for the classics that has motivated him since he was a toddler.
Lang Lang famously got hooked on classical music at the age of 3 when he heard Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 which formed the score of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. At the age of 11, he placed first at an international music competition in Germany. At 18, he played to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall.
He was one of the musicians selected to play at Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebration. And in 2009, Time Magazine named him one of the most influential people of the year.
Through it all, Lang Lang remains remarkably unaffected – secure in his own capabilities but ready to marvel at the talents of others. He spoke The Globe and Mail this week in his hotel room in Ottawa where he was preparing for the weekend concert.
After you heard that Liszt concerto on the Tom and Jerry cartoon, how did you convince your parents you were suddenly in love with classical music and that you should have piano lessons?
My parents, particularly my father, wished me to become a pianist because my father was a musician himself. He played a Chinese instrument called an erhu, like a Chinese violin. After the Cultural Revolution, piano became quite popular because piano is a worldwide thing; it’s not just a Chinese thing. So there are many parents, particularly those who studied music before, like my father, who wanted their kids to learn a little bit of Western music – to try to connect with the world instead of only learning Chinese culture. I had a piano already when I was one year old. So the piano was always there in my very first memories. It was a little upright piano and my parents spent six months of their salary to buy that piano for me.
Did you parents have trouble getting you to practice? How many hours a day did you spend in front of a piano when you were a kid?
In the very beginning, when I was 21/2, it was about 30 minutes. But then when I turned 4, I had a real piano teacher and I practised two to three hours (a day.) I liked to practise, but not every minute. So you need someone to sit with you and to give you encouragement to do it.
You didn’t see the other kids outside playing ball?
I did play ball also. To play piano just two hours is not a whole-day thing. But all of my neighbours were musicians because they were my father’s colleagues. So they all studied music. So somehow it was very natural. Because if you didn’t play an instrument, you were kind of a strange guy.
Do you ever say to yourself, even as an adult, “I just don’t want to play piano today”?
Yes, of course. But if you are serious about being a pianist, you can’t miss even a day. Especially when you are young, you have to have 100-per-cent discipline. After you get older, like me today, I can maybe skip one day. But I can’t skip two days because then you feel not as consistent. And being a professional musician in the classical-music world, you need to have a certain precision in every concert. You need to be extremely precise because the work we are playing is already written music. You can improvise a new work, but Beethoven or Chopin – which I am playing [Saturday] – you can’t do improvisation on that.
You have played such amazing venues. Is there any one that sticks out in your mind as the most thrilling?
I think I have to select two different venues. From the classical venues, I would say the Carnegie Hall. I still remember my debut there when I was 18 years old. It was mind-boggling. It was so exciting because it’s Carnegie Hall. It’s such a legendary place. And then for a non-classical venue, I would say the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic games. It was so incredible.
You are playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 22 at the National Arts Centre Gala on Saturday night. Do you have a favourite classical composer?
I just recorded a Chopin album which comes out Oct. 22 worldwide, and I played the whole Beethoven concerto cycle this year. So this year I will say those two composers. But next year I will focus a lot on Mozart. So every year I have a kind of theme.
Is there any composer you don’t like playing?
When you say you don’t like a composer, you don’t really know him or her. Because, when you are getting such big names like the first level of great composers, they are all wonderful. But maybe you’re not there yet. It’s not their fault.
Do you ever listen to other genres of music?
I went to see Lady Gaga’s concert in Vienna. The stage was amazing. It opened, it closed. It was gigantic. The costumes, the music – it was remarkable. I was deeply impressed by the excitement that she brings visually, and also to hear that, it’s very exciting. And there are also other musicians I really admire, like Usher – he is a wonderful musician – and Alicia Keys, and Jay-Z. I think they are extremely talented and interesting to watch. And a couple days ago, I did a concert for a very good friend of mine, Marvin Hamlisch. [Hamlisch died Aug. 6]. And two of his best friends, Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand, were there to perform so I was playing in between Aretha and Barbra ... It was very touching to see all those big musical icons there, and I felt very honoured to hear them live and to perform at the same time.
You spent time on Friday teaching a master class to young musicians at the National Arts Centre. Why do you do that sort of thing?
My Lang Lang International Music Foundation is based in New York. And we plan things with organizations around the world to produce master classes and also to produce cultivation events for kids. I think it is very important for us as performing artists, as well as someone who has major followings. We need to take responsibility to inspire kids because maybe a simple conversation with kids can inspire them and give them passion and confidence in music. And also, as artists, we need to show our caring toward the next generation. Because, in today’s society, classical music is not in the main spotlight. That’s a reality, especially among the younger generation. A lot of them have never experienced what a classical music concert is or what a music class is. So we have to give extra care to the kids who have music talent in themselves but never discovered it in their lives.