By Lawrence Budmen
South Florida Classical Review.com
Lang Lang has emerged as the leading superstar of today’s classical-music world, yet clearly the 27-year-old Chinese pianist is also attempting to balance his high-profile celebrity with serious musical artistry.
There is the Lang Lang who performs in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and during the opening ceremonies of the Munich and Beijing Olympics. Then there is the keyboard wunderkind who dazzles concertgoers with high-voltage performances of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff showpieces while broadening his repertoire to embrace the more subtle concertos of Mozart and Beethoven and the intimate world of chamber music.
Monday, March 29 the pianist plays Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts with conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra. An engagement at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach brings a repeat of the Prokofiev on Wednesday night, followed on Thursday afternoon by Mozart’s Concerto No. 17 in G Major, one of the rare times that Lang Lang will play a Mozart concerto in public.
“The Concerto No. 17 is a beautiful, most inspired piece,” he says. “I learned a lot about Mozart from [recordings of] Clara Haskil, a great Mozart interpreter. His music is more operatic and vocal. Chopin is equally vocal.”
Lang Lang’s odyssey began with tumultuous years of study at the Beijing Conservatory under the watchful eye of an unyielding father who dreamed of stardom for his son. Lang Lang has chronicled the triumphs and disappointments of that time in his autobiography Journey of a Thousand Miles.
In 1996 at 14, he arrived in the United States to study at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute where his principal teacher was famed concert pianist Gary Graffman, then Curtis’ president.
“Graffman had studied with Vladimir Horowitz, one of the greatest pianists of all time,” Lang Lang says. “It was incredible to learn that romantic tradition from one master who had learned it from another.”
Lang Lang “was an absolutely major talent from the start,” Graffman says. “He was marvelous and made every score his own. He excelled in Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, was absolutely marvelous in the Chopin etudes and Schumann Fantasy.”
Still, Graffman had to convince his young student to study and work seriously rather than just become an overachiever who would burn out quickly, winning numerous competitions but having a short-term career.
“Lang Lang was used to the old-fashioned Chinese method of teaching,” Graffman says. “Here he was exposed to different points of view with strong emphasis on the Russian and German traditions because our faculty comes from varied backgrounds, and when he played chamber works, he worked with string professors as well.” As Graffman had predicted, the young pianist’s big opportunity was as a substitute. Lang Lang made his debut at 17 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival when he stepped in on short notice to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 for the ailing Andre Watts, striking sparks with audience and critics.
Graffman says the pianist then gave a private performance of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (a work he has yet to play in public) for conductor Daniel Barenboim, who then became an enthusiastic advocate and mentor. Engagements with major orchestras and recitals at high-profile festivals and concert halls followed. Still, not everyone has been impressed. Some critics remain ambivalent even as Lang Lang has attempted to expand his repertoire and shed his image as a power-pounding dynamo. In his 2008 review of a Beethoven concerto, Steve Smith wrote in The New York Times that the pianist’s “excessive speed and affected dynamic contrasts . . . rendered Beethoven a foppish boor.”
Better received was a recent recording of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky trios with violinist Vadim Repin and cellist Mischa Maisky, his first recorded foray into chamber music.
“I want to do more chamber music and have residencies, but I need the perfect collaboration,” Lang Lang says. “While I enjoy working with great musicians, I need time to know the person. Otherwise, the performance just becomes competition.”
Graffman is not concerned that his former student will become sidetracked by the glow of celebrity.
“He handles it well. In fact, he flourishes on it. Lang Lang is highly intelligent and can learn scores quickly even while he has these other projects.
“He brings tremendous charisma to an audience without making musical compromises and brings people to concert halls who have never attended a performance. We need that.”