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,
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
"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
** He has recently been nominated Ambassadeur de la
Fondation pour l'Enfance des Nations Unis.
Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at