Superstar Chinese Pianist
Grammy Awards spread the love to a wide variety of artists, but performances on the Grammys’ international telecast are a much more rare opportunity. It’s one that pianist Lang Lang enjoyed twice this year.
First was his much-ballyhooed collaboration with rockers Metallica on their nightmarish hit “One” that had Lang Lang trading licks with lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and frontman James Hetfield.
A bit later, Lang Lang was back in more familiar territory for most of his audience, playing a tribute to late great pianist Van Cliburn during the show’s “In Memoriam” section.
Since the Grammys, on January 27, Lang Lang’s engagements have included New York’s Carnegie Hall.
The 31-year-old Chinese pianist has recorded critically acclaimed albums of music by piano greats and collaborated with venerable orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, and then turned around and played with Metallica, pop artists like Katharine McPhee and jazz great Herbie Hancock. He has commanded stages as big as the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is one of the few classical artists to get gigs on late-night talk shows. He has also been profiled by 60 Minutes.
To Lang Lang, that kind of exposure is important for himself and for music.
“It is a way to draw young people’s attention,” he said. “There are other ways as well. I often go to universities and give lectures and master classes, for instance.”
But playing with an orchestra is different, and different from playing with Metallica.
The Grammys performance was quite different from the white-tie-and-tails world of classical music. As he played One’s opening strains, flames shot up around him, video projections were beamed behind him and Hetfield and Hammett came over to the piano as they jammed.
Asked how playing with rock bands compares to orchestras, Lang Lang said it’s “very different. They have their own pace. You need to relearn the rock principles when working with the rock musicians.” Of any classical artist who has worked with glitzy rockers, Lang Lang might be the best suited. He is known for a highly expressive style that lends itself well to in-your-face jamming. It has earned him praise, but also derision, from critics and audiences.
Reviewing a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the San Diego Symphony, The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini wrote that Lang Lang, “true to form, played with dazzling technique, myriad colourings, bold impetuosity and exaggerated expressivity, milking melodic lines and manipulating dynamics for dramatic effect. But there is something authentic about Mr. Lang’s liberties, and his pianism is stunning.”
A year earlier, the Times’ Vivien Schweitzer reviewed a Lang Lang recital of Bach and Schubert: “Mr. Lang has long demonstrated a penchant for hamming it up, and he often did so here, a particularly egregious approach in this repertory.”
Asked about his playing style, Lang Lang said, “My personality is active, I think. And I try to be more open and expressive to music.”
His playing style extends back to his own training as a young musician. A child prodigy in the small town of Shenyang, China, Lang Lang, according to his official biography, began piano lessons at age 3, won his first competition at 5, entered a Chinese music conservatory at 9 and took top prize at the prestigious
International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians at 13. Then he left for the United States to study in Philadelphia.
“Mr. (Gary) Graffman in the Curtis Institute of Music always encouraged me to pursue the character and tastes of music, and in the same time keep my own personality in performance,” Lang Lang said, adding what may be the understatement of 21st-century classical music: “It helped me a lot.”