Lang Lang: The little emperor

The BBC Proms begin on Friday with a concert featuring the piano prodigy Lang Lang. He speaks to Michael Church about his 'great talent'. Below, Nicholas Kenyon, the Proms' director, explains why this season boasts fewer rarities than in the past

Monday 14 July 2003 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It has long been apparent that Western classical music is being shored up by the enthusiasm of the East: the Oriental fiddlers now celebrated in the West are merely a symptom of that groundswell of interest triggered in Asia by campaigning virtuosi like Yfrah Neaman, and by Isaac Stern's historic tour eternalised in the film From Mao to Mozart. So it's appropriate that the Proms should kick off on Friday with a barnstorming performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, by the boy who has been christened the Tiger Woods of classical music.

Lang Lang himself is more than happy with this comparison: false modesty is not seen as a virtue in China. This ebullient 21-year-old talks unblushingly about his "great talent", secure in the knowledge that even those critics who are hardest to please also regard it as great. The Chinese have a nickname for the typical male product of the one-baby law - "little emperor" - and Lang Lang could be its archetype.

The apparent mystery of his name has been best explained by his musician father, Guo Ren Lang: "Even at one month old, our son had a special reaction to music. He was a happy child with an open mind. In Chinese the two names Lang and Lang have different tones and meanings. The first means 'bright' or 'brilliant' and the second is the name we gave him when we found his character. It means 'open mind'."

When I ask which music first took root in that mind, Lang Lang breaks into song: "Dah dee-dah dah, de-de DAH''; that being the opening theme of the Mozart sonata he fell in love with when he was two. As the son of the concert master of Shenyang city orchestra, he grew up in a dormitory full of musicians, with a different sound coming out of every window. "I didn't really understand Peking Opera, and I still don't," he admits. "I liked music which touched my heart and inspired me, and though Chinese folk instruments did that sometimes, Mozart did it always. His music felt very connected to me." His parents bought him a cheap Chinese piano, and he began replicating on it all the music he heard on television: his particular favourite was the soundtrack to a programme called The Monkey King.

"When I was five I started serious study," he goes on. "And in that year I won a competition with a piece by Liszt and the Mozart - dah dee-dah! Even then I wanted to be a world-class pianist. The piano felt very connected to me, and giving recitals, I felt totally relaxed, no nerves at all. I loved being on stage." The video of that competition says it all: in order to reach the pedals he had to play standing up, but his delivery is emphatic and notably secure. A video made one year later reflects his phenomenally rapid development into an assured little virtuoso. "I always wanted to do challenging things," he comments, "and I learnt fast." His demonstrative keyboard manner - convulsed with excitement in Prokofiev, swooning over Schumann, as though physically inside the music - was there almost from the start.

The Manchurian city of Shenyang was a good place, he says, "but it was not big enough for me." So he went to study in Beijing, accompanied by his father (who sacrificed his job), while his mother stayed in Shenyang and earned the family's money as a telephone engineer. The little emperor had to be given every chance. At nine, he says, he was practising six hours a day, learning the Tchaikovsky concerto at 10 and Rachmaninov's Third at 11, as well as dozens of Mozart and Beethoven sonatas. At 13 he played the complete Chopin Etudes and won the Tchaikovsky competition, which launched his Asian career.

"But while the conservatoire wanted to keep me in China, other friends told me to go out, to develop my great talent in Europe or America. And they were right - you have to keep improving." One thing led to another. A tape of his Chopin performances was sent to Gary Graffman, president of the Curtis Institute, and at 15 Lang Lang found himself in Philadelphia. "The great thing about the Curtis is that every student has a Steinway grand in their apartment. That was like a dream. I kept getting up in the night to check it was really there. On my cheap piano in Beijing I had destroyed many strings, so that when my teacher came to visit me, and asked me to play Rach three, when I pressed down the first note there was no sound. Then more notes wouldn't sound. He was shocked, but he said it must have been good for my imagination."

Admission to the Curtis merely served to put him on the pianistic fast track alongside hundreds of other young hopefuls. His big break came when he auditioned for conductor Christoph Eschenbach, and then, knowing he'd done a good job, went back home to bed. "Early next morning the phone rang. 'Wake up! If you want to be famous, wake up! Otherwise go back to sleep.' So I woke up, and was told to fly to Chicago immediately to play the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Mr Isaac Stern." After that, his phone never stopped ringing.

He has now been lent a Steinway which used to belong to Vladimir Horowitz - a nice connection, in that his tutor Gary Graffman was himself a Horowitz pupil, and because Lang Lang is consciously following in the Russian master's footsteps. When I ask if he has made a comparison between Horowitz's recording of Rachmaninov's Third Concerto and his own, he suddenly looks apologetic. "I made the big mistake of not listening to his recording before I did mine - if I'd heard it, my performance would have been more inspired." So how does he see the difference? "His performance is so lyrical, and expresses such strong tragedy, such suffering, as though he lives in such a hard world. He seems to be like a child in a Harry Potter movie, as though surrounded by characters." By any other standards, Lang Lang's version is hugely impressive, but Horowitz makes it sound well-bred and over-restrained. On a CD just out this week, Lang Lang plays Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, who has been, he says, another of his formative influences. These performances reflect his extraordinary amalgam of technique plus impeccable artistry: he may not be able to raise the Mendelssohn above its second division status, but he finds startling new beauties in Tchaikovsky's much-played work.

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But the most refreshing thing about Lang Lang is that he's stayed true to his roots in a completely unpretentious way. He still plays chamber music with his father, whose instrument is the Chinese erhu (bowed like a cello, and more piercingly sweet than the violin), and he makes a point of including contemporary Chinese works in his recitals. Asked about the future for indigenous Chinese music, he replies: "It's very bright, with Yo-Yo Ma building bridges between East and West, and with Tan Dun, whose work will be on my next recording." But he doesn't like facile fusions. "Chinese people love the piano, but they must do their own thing with it." Then he switches into triumphalist mode: "People in the West should know that the Chinese are coming. Look at their numbers in Western conservatoires. Just as the violin was the Korean and Japanese thing, the piano is the Chinese instrument. It is the king of instruments." The emperor has spoken.

'Lang Lang: Tchaikovsky/ Mendelsssohn' is on Deutsche Grammophon (474 291-2)


Nicholas Kenyon has been director of the Proms since 1996. Greek myth is the main theme for this season, starting with Tippett's opera King Priam on Sunday, Mendelssohn's rarely heard incidental music to Sophocles' Antigone in a late-night Prom three days later, Strauss's opera Elektra on 29 July and Berlioz's The Trojans on 25 August. Stravinsky, that enthusiastic hijacker of myth, joins in with Apollon Musagete on 21 July, Perséphone on 10 August and Oedipus Rex on 7 September.

"The thing I'm really happiest about this year is that the 'Greek myth' idea has come together with such a strong sequence of events. That came out of deciding to do The Trojans for the Berlioz bicentenary." Oddly, though Greek myth was a staple of Baroque opera (and Kenyon has an "early music" background), all we get is a splash of Rameau: a suite from Hippolyte et Aricie (12 August) and a handful of dances (10 September).

Kenyon is also happy with the number of new and recent pieces he's managed to get into the season. "If you take just the violin concertos, with the Tuur, Knussen and Pintscher [1 and 14 August, 2 September], that's a very good selection." Other new music highlights include the European premieres of James MacMillan's Third Symphony on 24 July, Elliott Carter's Boston Concerto on 14 August, and the UK premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Insomnia on 3 September.

Despite Kenyon's assurances, the season could be more adventurous: with an audience more faithful than other London concerts enjoy, the Proms could take a risk. Granted, Paul Watkins plays William Schuman's rarely heard A Song of Orpheus for cello and orchestra on 23 July, and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra brings the ninth symphony by fellow-Finn Kalevi Aho on 18 August - some interesting repertoire is bound to make it through, after all. Kenyon half-meets my objection: "I agree that it would be nice to have some interesting exhumations as well, but they tend to come through the anniversaries. For example, we have some rare Prokofiev this year, with Gergiev doing a piece that hasn't been heard in London before, to the best of our knowledge" - the Symphonic Song on 20 August.

One aspect of the Proms that has considerably expanded under Kenyon's auspices is the audience-building effort. There's a "Nation's Favourite" Prom on 19 July, with the programme chosen by the audience; a Blue Peter Prom at 11 in the morning a week later; and a Late Junction Prom on 2 August.

"We have to address the young generation in their own terms," Kenyon says. "We know we've got something absolutely fantastic at the end of the process, something that absolutely anybody who comes to a Prom can enjoy - but we've got to draw them in. They get a taste for the atmosphere of the Proms, and even if they don't come back immediately, they will know that a Prom is not a threatening, elite, exclusive experience." Well, it has worked for the Queen, who is expected to turn up for an evening of Walton, Elgar, Bax and others on 30 July - her first Prom since 1994.

Martin Anderson

Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212;

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