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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 12 August 2006—It seemed rather odd that Lang Lang's first recording for Deutsche Grammophon should be called "Memories" when, at just twenty-four, his future is right in front of him.  However, when I met the Chinese pianist in Paris after his first recital at the Théatre du Chatelet, when he played the works on his new CD, pieces by Mozart, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt, he explained that the programme he had given that evening, rapturously received by the public,  held strong childhood associations for him.

"I learnt many of those pieces when I was a child", he told me. "Mozart is so light-hearted and unique with all his swings of mood. His music has to be treated very carefully; it is so precious.  Schumann's Kinderszenen, which wasn't really written for young pianists, evokes states of mind to me, both past and present. And then Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody, which I love to play as an encore, is particularly special as I heard it when I was watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon at two years old. I didn't know it was Liszt; I just loved it and wanted to play it myself, and then my parents let me have piano lessons the following year."

"My father", he continued, "who came to play with me on stage this evening because it's a family tradition for us to play together every Saturday, is a professional musician.  We love playing Chinese music together and even have a project of making a recording and maybe a DVD, hopefully in the Forbidden City, using old traditional Chinese instruments, pipa, guzheng, Chinese piccolo, and erhu.  I grew up listening to erhu, but not all the time because Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart are all immensely popular in China."

"I was also fortunate that my teacher was the best Bach teacher in China, so I was playing his works from the age of three. I particularly love the Goldberg Variations. But from Bach to Bartok, passing by Ravel and Debussy, people in China love the standard repertoire just as we love Shakespeare and Victor Hugo. It's no different than here in the West, you know."

Lang Lang, who was born in Shenyang, China, began playing the piano at home under the watchful eye of Professor Zhu Ya-Fen, before entering the Central Music Conservatory in Bejing when he was nine. By then he had already given recitals in public and won prizes not only in China, but in Germany and Japan, and at fifteen he moved to Philadelphia where he still has a home, to study with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute.

"I owe a great deal to Christophe Eschenbach who "discovered" and supported me", Lang Lang told me, "and one of my great idols is Daniel Barenboim* who has been like a second father to me since we met several years ago. He's not only my mentor, but my great friend. He's got a rare combination of emotion and intellectualism, and his acuteness and intelligence is beyond words. His playing is an inspiration to me. He's so incredibly clear, and working with him was an amazing experience."

"Apart from him, I also learnt a lot from Valery Gergiev who taught me  the importance of understanding Russian culture in my interpretation of Russian music", he said. "Gergiev told me to not be in a rush but to take my time to enjoy what I'm playing. After all, I have to communicate my love of the music to my audience".

 Lang Lang told me of his pleasure when Yehudi Menuhin's daughter, who used to be married to the legendary Chinese pianist, Fou T's'ong, came to hear him play Beethoven's Concerto for piano and orchestra No 4 in G major op.58 and was so enthusiastic, a feeling shared by the audience in Verbier, Switzerland, when he appeared with the UBS Verbier Festival orchestra in July. Lang Lang played with a freshness and force which stole the hearts of his audience.

 We continued our conversation the day after his concert, sitting at a table in the sun looking out over the snow-covered mountains. Relaxed and smiling, and wearing a pale-blue track suit and sneakers, Lang Lang, sipping his coffee, looked barely old enough to be one of the students in the orchestra.

"I particularly enjoy working with the U.B.S. Verbier Orchestra where the ages range from about 18 to 25", he said. "They are fabulous and rehearsals are great fun; it's important for students to work with musicians who are young. I give master classes and teaching has always been an important part of my life. I began when I was 9 and have always loved it. It's a great experience for me to know what pupils want and I seem to communicate well with them. And it's a two-way process, for I learn a lot too. "

"Many great musicians are too serious and simply not on the same wave-length as kids. I remember loathing so many of my master classes in China because the teacher was like a policeman, criticising all the time, so nobody had any fun. Or alternatively, they said nothing at all which was just as bad. There's such a thing as constructive criticism, where you give them confidence and encourage at the same time as you correct. "

Lang Lang with pupils 
Photo: Lucy Boccadoro

"Music schools send me students and it often happens that I teach people older than myself, but less now than in the past ", he laughed. " And quite often, students will send me recordings they have made. But the most important thing to me is to bring out the joy of playing, in my own music as much as theirs. I want to share my passion for music with young people.** Many students know how to play academically", and here he rapped his fingers faster than lightening along the table to demonstrate his point, "but they  have to learn how to express  emotion. Each note that you play says something. If you are not inspired when you play, then you can just forget about it."

"I try to teach them how I work; with my hands, with my mind and with my heart all the time, every day. That's the main point. It's what it's all about. " 


* Lang Lang will be appearing at the Théatre du Chatelet in Paris on 24 October with the Staatskapelle of Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

** He has recently been nominated Ambassadeur de la Fondation pour l'Enfance des Nations Unis.

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at Culturekiosque.com

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