Lang Lang eager to hitch young pianists to his stardom
By Katherine Boyle,
The accolades, the smears: Lang Lang has heard them all.
Critics tire of his skyward gazes. Musicians scrutinize his technique.
Novices know him as the world’s most dazzling pianist, the Liszt of the digital era. They know his “Flight of the Bumblebee” on an iPad, his incessant Twitter updates, and that he’s inspired 45 million children in China to take to the keys.
Over the past decade, at one time or another, Lang has embodied many and various assessments. An exuberant young showman, he weathered the praise and condemnation while navigating superstardom on multiple continents. His stagecraft, marked by raw emotion and virtuosic ability, helped him break free of the constraints of the concert hall. At the height of his celebrity, he leapt off the arts pages and into the global spotlight during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
But after years in the spotlight, the boy wonder has grown up. Lang Lang is now 30, and mentorship, not showmanship, is becoming his priority.
“Being 30, I’m still pretty young,” Lang said, laughing at the idea that his 30th birthday in June was a life-altering milestone. “I felt a little bit different after 21, like, ‘I’m not a piano prodigy anymore. . . . In the future, I would like to do more education initiatives for children. I want to work with different schools around the world to find a new way to teach, following the tradition, of course, to find a new method or way to think about piano.”
After starting his foundation four years ago, he has championed mentoring programs with young pianists. And on Sunday, Lang will begin a week-long residency at the Kennedy Center alongside one of his most influential mentors, Christoph Eschenbach, whom Lang still calls “a second father.”
In typical fashion, Lang’s residency will be crammed with events and concerts. He’ll perform six times in seven days, playing three Beethoven concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra and two solo recitals.
At the end of the week, the mentee will become mentor when Lang plays with 100 area children onstage for his popular “101 Pianists” workshop. Part master class and part performance, the program has invited young people ages 8 to 18 to play Franz Schubert's Marche Militaire No. 1 and Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5 en masse with Lang and one another. Local teachers were asked to recommend students for the program. Because of the huge response, the 100 students were chosen through a lottery at the Kennedy Center.
The program — which has been performed in Chicago, New York and San Francisco — reiterates Lang’s emphasis on the new generation, a priority that was passed down from mentor to mentee.
A meeting of mentors
The story is now part of Lang Lang lore.
It was 1999, and Andre Watts, who was ill with a high fever, was scheduled to perform at the summer Ravinia Festival outside Chicago. A replacement was needed to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 . And Lang was there, waiting and ready for his break.
“I did not know him,” Eschenbach said. “Nobody knew him. I was supposed to listen to him for 20 minutes. It turned into an hour and half. I was so taken with the 17-year-old boy. How could he play everything with the same quality and musicality? . . . I was just amazed.”
That evening, Lang gave his breakthrough performance, with Eschenbach, the man who would become his mentor, conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“Maestro Eschenbach gave me the first chance to shine on an international stage,” Lang said. “He always stands next to me when I’m facing a challenge. He’s always encouraged me to keep going and never look back.”
Eschenbach said: “I knew he would be a star. He had all the ingredients of a great artist, incredible technique, wonderful deep musicality and charisma.”
Early in Lang’s superstardom, Eschenbach was an outspoken defender of the young pianist when critics dismissed his evocative performance style. Eschenbach once went so far as to call for a retraction when a Chicago Tribune critic, John von Rhein, panned one of Lang’s performances.
“There are a lot of maestros in the world helping young people, but Christoph helps young people with the extras, with life,” Lang said. “He wants to help without any returns, because he cares about your future.”
Lang called Eschenbach the model of good mentorship, an encouraging father figure who helped guide his career. That benevolent teacher was missing from Lang’s early life.
In Lang’s memoir “Journey of a Thousand Miles,” he recounts his father’s cold and bullying parenting style. When Lang was 9, his father moved him from Shenyang, China, to Beijing, and pushed him into a suffocating practice schedule. He remembers many of his teachers as cold and angry, never offering words of encouragement. In some ways, this excruciating childhood served as the impetus for Lang’s own focus on mentorship.
“I had bad teachers and great teachers,” Lang said. “And I know how great teachers can change your life and how bad teachers can destroy your musical career. I always try to pick ones that will inspire kids.”
The mentor onstage
The “101 Pianists” program showcases Lang’s upbeat and encouraging teaching style. It also makes the case that piano can be a social experience, particularly when amplified by 50 electric pianos and 101 pianists playing simultaneously.
“He has a very open heart for children and those who are meeting music for the first time,”Eschenbach said. “It’s a wonderful thing he does. He is not only thinking of himself.”
Lang said: “As pianists, we normally don’t play with other people. We are more individualist rather than a team. It’s time to give pianists the chance to play together.”
Lang’s mission does not stop at the concert hall. He is a prolific user and proponent of social media. He updates his Facebook and Twitter pages daily with information about his favorite classical works and composers, as well as his whereabouts. While some see his frequent updates as part of a brilliant marketing strategy, he promotes social media as an educational tool.
“People who are my age, we all live on the Internet, [so] we can work with social media to get news out,” Lang said. “To say ‘Guys, look at my favorite symphony.’ Musicians can help deliver these works to people.”
When he’s not performing in the world’s great concert halls, he plans to spend his 30s teaching young people about the piano, building piano academies and developing new ways to reach audiences he hasn’t encountered yet.
“From the outside, he is a megastar,” Eschenbach said. “But inside, he is still the very thoughtful, modest musician who came to me as a youngster. He still has his feet on the ground.”
Lang Lang in Residency
six performances in seven days; Nov. 4-10. National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; (202) 467-4600