Lang Lang: So good, they named him twice

Lang Lang has come a long way since he was inspired to take up the piano by a Tom and Jerry cartoon - all the way to Carnegie Hall and 'Sesame Street'. Katy Guest meets China's most high-profile musician
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The Independent Culture

The golden boy of the new wave of Chinese musicians that has been taking the classical music world by storm in recent times is running late. He bursts in, full of apologies and chattering multilingually into his mobile phone. The 24-year-old Lang Lang is between appointments and practice, screeching around the city like a spiky-haired dervish. And this is his day off.

With his manic energy and cheeky smile, he bears an uncanny resemblance to an old-fashioned cartoon. As it turns out, Lang Lang's love affair with the piano started when he was two years old, and he saw a Tom and Jerry cartoon on TV, The Cat Concerto. "They were playing Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody No 2," he says, his face alive at the memory. "And at that time I didn't know Liszt, I didn't know Horowitz, I didn't know Beethoven. I only know Tom and Jerry. So Tom was my first idol pianist. And then later I realised that there is no way to play like Jerry."

He giggles, wriggling his fingers like a mouse running over the keys and clearly still gripped by the thrill of that moment. His excitement has not waned in the intervening 22 years, but he has come a long way since he peered up at his parents' cheap new piano and tried to emulate a cartoon cat. He has just collaborated with Steinway to design a new piano, named after him and intended to inspire other children to play. "You can turn around the lid and draw pictures... I made stars on the piano, for tuning, and I put a little thing for your iPod so you can watch a great pianist playing while you play, like karaoke. It is so inspiring," he says. "They're calling it the Lang Lang Steinway."

Lang Lang's precocious talent has lived up to his name. The two words are pronounced with different intonations and have different meanings: "The first means 'bright' or 'brilliant'," his father, Guo-Ren Lang, has explained. "The second is the name we gave him when we found his character. It means 'open mind'." At three, he began training with a professor from the Shenyang Conservatory of Music, and at five he won first prize in the Shenyang Piano Competition and gave his first public recital. At nine, he entered the Central Music Conservatory in Beijing. "I moved there with my father, and my mother stayed at home and worked [to support] us," he says. "So it was very challenging. Tough. I missed her a lot - but I think it was even worse for her."

Living in a freezing, one-room apartment with his father, he says he never once wanted to give up and go home. He was equally resolved as a teenager, when he moved to Philadelphia to study at the Curtis Institute. "What kept me going was the connection between my heart and the music. It brings you energy, hope, encouragement and joy... I know if you want to be a pianist it really takes lots of time, motivation and discipline. Otherwise everybody would become a great pianist. So I know I need to work harder than the other people."

Lang Lang says that, even at 15 and stuck in solitary training in Philadelphia, he never wanted to chuck it all in and become a rock star. He didn't need to: these days, he gets rock star treatment in China;he's about as popular as the young Elvis, and equally surrounded by screaming crowds. He was recently given a brand new Cadillac by General Motors. He hopes he might get some time off soon so that he can learn how to drive.

Musically, he is at the top of his profession. In 2001, at the age of 19, he debuted at Carnegie Hall - and tickets sold out; in the same year, he also made his BBC Proms debut, which a Times critic called "history in the making". Now, at the age of only 24, he is the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by the Berlin Philharmonic and all "Big Five" American orchestras - the New York Philharmonic, Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, and the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras.

His profile extends beyond the classical world, too. He has performed live on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and on Sesame Street. The New York Times has called him "stunning", while the San Francisco Chronicle concluded that "there is nothing to do but gape in awestruck amazement." Robert Maycock, for this newspaper, praised his performance of a Beethoven concerto in London last summer, for "already [having] digested everything about the performer and taken it to a new, transcendent level of understanding".

But not everybody is a fan of his flamboyant delivery: the Daily Mail called the same performance "vulgar, vulgar, vulgar". Lang Lang giggles, again, about these divided opinions. "First of all, I am not a traditional pianist," he says. "I am not a pianist that behaves. If I play more reserved, maybe I can get better reviews. But I don't. Because composers give you certain ideas, but in the end you just need to play it. Like Liszt says, you need to make that music live again. And that is a challenge, because if you do that not everybody will be pleased."

He is certainly passionate about classical music. Like any young person, he loves jazz, thinks Michael Jackson is a genius, dances to American pop and listens to Sting, U2, Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keyes. But it is when he talks about Beethoven and Liszt that his eyes really light up. "Classical music is like a conversation, it's like Shakespeare," he says, his hands doing as much talking as his mouth. "Every piece is a different story and every phrase is a different person. And then also each voice is a different personality - especially with the piano because it has so many different voices. And sometimes the voice is a solo, sometimes in a group. Each time I play it I can make the hero less or the servant greater. It's like all the great novels: sometimes the big star can be a cleaning lady."

He is about to display his versatility by releasing an album of Chinese music, however - the day after Chinese New Year. All the songs on Dragon Stories are traditionally Chinese, but he has tried to make them "more harmonically European". "I think Chinese music needs to develop, music always should be developed," he says. "Beethoven kept developing; Brahms kept developing. And I think if Chinese music wants to be a world language it needs to do the same." He hopes that Westerners will love it as much as the Chinese, a country with more than 20 million piano students, love Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Chopin, "because it is great music."

The highlight of the album is the great Yellow River Concerto, and Lang Lang hopes that it will inspire a global audience as much as it inspired his countrymen when it was composed by Xian Xinghai in 1939, during the Japanese occupation. "This piece helped to bring back our energy and self-confidence," he says. "It was like a wake-up call from the nightmare." Lang Lang loves his music so much that he believes his Yellow River Concerto could help forge a new global understanding. "It really gets people positive," he says, his eyes and his hands dancing. "It is optimistic, it has such a grandness, such a passion for life. This is what I think is needed." It's a nice idea, but I don't think even Jerry could manage that.

'Dragon Songs' is out on 19 February on Deutsche Grammophon