Why China's first Olympic superstar will be a pianist called Lang Lang

Clifford Coonan
Friday 01 August 2008 00:00 BST

Dressed in his trademark Versace jacket and plain T-shirt, his Liberace quiff all a-quiver, Lang Lang is China's first true international musical star.

His bright red Steinway piano, assured technical virtuosity and eccentric playing style have made the irrepressible musical prodigy an Olympic favourite in China even before the Beijing Games have even begun. For Lang Lang is to perform before the eyes of the world at the opening ceremony of the Games on 8 August.

He suffers none of the inherent shyness that plagues the country's big names when they leave to work abroad. Part of this is because of his excellent English, but a lot is down to his vivacious personality. Asian artists are still accused of being big on technique but low on emotion, but Lang Lang's abilities fly in the face of this stereotype. A restless figure, Lang Lang brims with self-confidence, almost bravado, but he is truly in his element when playing the piano.

"I just love to perform, I love the light, I love the time when I'm on stage, and I feel comfortable. I feel probably better than I do at home," he says.

His playing style is unquestionably odd. Just as the genius pianist Glenn Gould would hum along while playing Bach's Goldberg Variations, Lang likes to sing along, as well as jump around, his gifted fingers gliding along the keys, occasionally pummelling out chords with his fists, taking a kung fu approach to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Imagine Jerry Lee Lewis playing Rachmaninov, or Daniel Barenboim possessed by the spirit of punk, and you get the picture. Lang is no cold fish.

And his technical skills have won plaudits from the great names of classical music, including his mentor Barenboim, who he visits for masterclasses every year in Berlin.

To the Chinese, the 26-year-old musician from the north-eastern city of Shenyang, a steel town famous for building tanks and trains, rivals the basketball legend Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang in their affections. His innate feel for popular culture, with daring references to kung fu and video games peppering his discussions of the great composers, has made classical music accessible in China in a fundamental way. He has been filmed playing Chopin using an orange.

"I play piano like a multi-media website. You have the pictures, you have the scores, also you have the harmonies, it's like you're playing with computers, but obviously with heart," he told the Asia Society last year.

This message certainly works with China's 30 million piano students, and his legions of female fans, see his appearance at the opening ceremony as the true highlight of the Games. He won great domestic plaudits for his work to help the victims of the Sichuan earthquake in May, and he will auction the red Steinway to raise money for that cause.

"You are the pride of the Chinese nation, and the pride of the whole world! I will always enjoy your music. In the music sky you are the brightest star forever!" wrote one online fan. Other internet users urged him to continue with his efforts to "win glory for our country."

Lang Lang started playing aged three after being inspired by an unlikely musical star. "When I was two years old I was watching Tom and Jerry and the cat was playing Liszt. Tom was my first teacher," he said.

Aged five, he won the main Shenyang piano compeition and gave his first public recital. At nine he entered Beijing's prestigious Central Music Conservatory where he dazzled his teachers, and by 13 he was playing Chopin's 24 Etudes at the Beijing Concert Hall. A single child of the one-child policy era, his parents suffered under the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Lang's father, Lang Guoren, played the Chinese two-stringed violin known as the erhu and was head of the local traditional orchestra, but the reforms meant he became a police officer. Lang's mother, Zhou Xiulan, a former dancer and singer, became a telephone operator.

Footage on YouTube shows Lang playing a duet with his father at Carnegie Hall, the elder Lang playing the erhu. Lang's father was the textbook driving force, putting unbearable pressure on his son at times to be the best in the world, according to Lang's autobiography. Success meant a way out of dire poverty in Shenyang.

It paid off when Lang left China with his parents aged 15, after he won a place at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, famous for its work with exceptionally gifted young musicians. He got his first big break internationally aged 17, when he performed Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Since then, the only way has been up.

He was the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by the Berlin Philharmonic, performing with the British conductor Sir Simon Rattle, as well as the Vienna Philharmonic and all the leading US orchestras. Last year, at the Prince of Wales's invitation, Lang Lang performed a concerto commissioned in memory of the Queen Mother.

This year he has duelled pianos with Herbie Hancock at the Grammys, and has worked with Adidas to make a training shoe that has his name in Chinese written on the side, and a piano pedal graphic on the insole. Lang Lang's name has a trademark sign beside it at each reference on his website. This is the classical artist as global brand and his marketing abilities are nearly as accomplished as his professional skills.

Not everyone believes Lang's assertion that musical performance is about balancing emotion with being in control, and his flamboyance has irked members of the musical establishment. Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of The New York Times, has described his playing as "incoherent" and "hammy", although he has been more positive of late.

The opening ceremony is being orchestrated by Zhang Yimou, China's most famous film director, whose previous public performances in opera can lead us to expect a lot of red and emotion.

Lang will be a central feature in the ceremony that night. It's a fair bet that he might play The Yellow River Concerto, a huge hit with local audiences. Whatever we can look forward to, do not expect understatement.

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