Music Preview: From Olympics to Adidas, Lang Lang's worldwide fan base flourishes

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With bad news cascading down on the classical music industry like a roaring glissando over the past decade, many felt it would never see another figure with the high public profile of pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Then in 1999, Chinese pianist Lang Lang burst onto the scene with a last-minute substitution for Andre Watts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Of course, we've all heard that story before in concert music. But Lang Lang comes with two distinct differences.

One, he is riding the surge of an entire nation's new explosion onto the world economic and cultural scene. With Lang Lang's name recognition in China of 1.3 billion people alone, the 26-year-old is likely the most famous living pianist ever. He paid a bitter price for this fame: His recently published autobiography reveals that Lang Lang was pushed, occasionally mercilessly, by his father to succeed in the ultra-competitive Chinese conservatory scene. But he survived, reconciled with his father and is now a national treasure, involved in the Olympics as a performer and torchbearer.

Pittsburgh Symphony Gala
  • Featuring: Manfred Honeck, conductor; Lang Lang, piano
  • Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
  • Tickets: $39-$105, plus gala packages starting at $200.
  • More information: 412-392-4900.
  • Book signing by Lang Lang: 7 tonight at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, South Side.

Two, Lang Lang plays with an eccentricity and flamboyance unlike many before him -- certainly unlike just about any pianist who also has his stunning virtuosity. He may all but jump off the piano bench at times, but he rarely misses notes.

While critical and public reception has been mixed on how much these interpretations and gesticulations serve the music vs. himself, there is no denying Lang Lang's popularity has ascended to Horowitz-like heights, in the East and the West. He is now the hottest commodity in the concert circuit. He not only has best-selling albums -- "The Magic of Lang Lang" and "Dragon Songs" being the latest -- he has a special athletic shoe made by Adidas. It is definitely Lang Lang's heyday, and he will bring his star appeal to the Pittsburgh Symphony gala concert Friday, performing Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2.

We caught up with the pianist for an interview, the larger portion of which will run prior to his return to Heinz Hall for a solo recital Nov. 18.

Do you have a different approach to playing Chopin piano concertos vs. playing his solo salon music?

I think, actually, not so much, because Chopin is very pianistic a composer, even in his piano concertos. Rachmaninoff or Beethoven [are] more like symphonic work. For Chopin, it's more about piano. Chopin really gave a lot of freedom for piano to express itself from using the melodies he provided. Actually, in many places, orchestra supported the main melody. So as a pianist it is easier to play Chopin concertos than other concertos because you have more freedom. But for orchestra it's the same challenge because sometimes when a pianist is doing many, many things it is a huge challenge for the orchestra in how to fit in with the pianist.

What is your favorite part of the second concerto?

Certainly the second movement is my favorite. This piece actually is the first piano concerto for me to play with a orchestra. I was 13, in Japan. Before this I never had a chance to play with orchestra (I always played with a second piano or something). So this piece is my orchestra debut basically.

I remember when I was in this competition many people asked me to play something else because they told me the second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 is too romantic for a 13-year-old. Chopin wrote it in his late teens, you know, while he was falling in love with a girl.

My father told me, "Do you miss your mom?" And I said, "Of course." My mom left us to stay at home. I was always longing for her and miss her so much. So somehow that kind of feeling I adapted into the second movement. So it was a very successful performance for me during that time. So I always have a very special feeling about that piece. It reminds me of my mom.

How has your playing style evolved since you have become professional?

As a professional musician you need to be always very precise, therefore you always need to keep in the best condition. Somehow, over the years I learned so much from other musicians -- violinists, cellists, other great pianists -- they show me so many great ways of making music. You must get into this circle to improve yourself. It's like if you play basketball you must play in the NBA. That is the only place you can learn from other people to improve yourself. The music world changed me a lot playing with the great musicians.

Does your hectic schedule get in the way of your preparation and reflection for concerts these days?

The good trick is I have a piano in the hotel rooms. So when I arrive, I take a shower and right away I can get into preparing the concert so it's OK. If you don't have access to practicing then it's dangerous. For a pianist it is harder because we can't move the piano around like the string players. Yo-Yo Ma told me he practiced while he was waiting for a bus or a car, you know? That is the secret to playing a good concert -- you need to prepare well.

What do you feel is the most important thing a performer can do with a piece of music?

The composers already wrote the piece and it already exists. Our job is to bring the dead music to life again. Every time it needs to be a new life. When the notes begin and the melody begins that is a new life reborn. Every time, that magical moment between the silence to the first note it is so breathtaking. It is so magical that feeling.

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750. He blogs at Classical Musings at

Patricia Sheridan contributed to this story.


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