Imagine a classical performer able to generate the excitement of Elvis or the Beatles, and you will be getting close to the buzz surrounding the young Chinese pianist Lang Lang. At 26, with his wild hair, secret taste for pop and rap, and an enormous natural charm, Lang Lang has the kind of presence that goes beyond the rock star model, all the way back to Franz Liszt, the 19th-century pianist who earned such wild adoration from his fans that women tore his gloves and handkerchiefs apart for souvenirs. When Lang Lang-the Liszt of the 21st century-plays the Granada on Tuesday, October 28, he may not cause a Beatles-or Liszt-level of visible hysteria in the audience, but you will be able to hear a comparably exciting musical achievement in the amazing virtuosity and energy of his performance.
Lang Lang exists in the tension between two idealized conceptions of what a classical performer should be: the indomitable musical competitor and the Romantic artist. Like many virtuoso pianists, Lang Lang was a prodigy, beginning his studies at three, giving his first public performance at five, and winning the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians’ Competition at 13. For much of his early career, competition defined his life: In a recent interview with National Public Radio, he recalled telling his teacher, Gary Graffman of the Curtis School of Music, “I want to be like Tiger Woods. I want to win all the big competitions.” Graffman brought him back down to earth, teaching him how to develop as an artist.
The young virtuoso began to show more individuality and cheerfulness, both in performance and in life, than the deadly serious world of competitive musicianship generally allows. Even as he matures, he still sees a connection between musicians and athletes, as he told me in an email: “I see that there are many similarities between athletes and musicians: the discipline, the drive for improvement, and the love for your work. I find performance a great way to match both worlds.”
Lang Lang’s public breakthrough came in 1999, when the 17-year-old received a call to substitute for Andre Watts, who had been scheduled to play at the “Gala of the Century” concert with Christoph Eschenbach and the Chicago Symphony. Lang Lang’s performance that night of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 made him an overnight sensation, leading to sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Kennedy Center, as well as appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the National Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, among many others.
Lang Lang’s best-known performances have broken out of the standard classical mold, sometimes with controversial results. He frequently opens big festivals in outdoor venues, including the Beijing Olympics, where he and five-year-old Li Muzi played a duet that was more a demonstration of national pride than a classical performance; of course, that’s been true of every Olympic gala at every Olympics. Nevertheless, Lang Lang keeps playing and moving with irresistible enthusiasm -he even has a documentary about himself (posted on his Web site) called “The Lang Lang Effect,” which shows him rehearsing, performing, traveling, talking, and doing everything with relentless, unfailing energy and humor in what he calls “a pseudo-reality show.” The “Effect” rubs off on everyone he meets, from conductors to cab drivers, like a “Mozart Effect” for adults.
His most recent recording for Deutsche Grammophon, a studio performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 4, provides indisputable evidence that music, not personality, lies at the heart of the Lang Lang Effect. The boldness of this choice reveals the extent of Lang Lang’s ambition-he wants to usurp Arthur Rubinstein’s versions from the 1950s and 1960s as the definitive recordings of these concertos, and he may have done so. Lang Lang’s CD sparkles; runs that usually come out as a blur sound clean and controlled, but with a touch of wildness; emotion bubbles through a highly cerebral interpretation; and all sounds fresh, new, and rich. Lang Lang doesn’t overcome the limitations of digital sound-few CDs have the warmth of vinyl, no matter how old and scratched-but he does find new ways to use digital precision to his advantage.
What he has planned for his solo performance at the Granada should reveal his best qualities, in all their contradictions. The program includes Piano Sonata No. 20 in A, D. 959, by Franz Schubert, one of his enigmatic “last sonatas,” written shortly before his death at 31. Neglected during the 19th and early 20th centuries, these late works have come into their own with the two most recent generations of concert pianists, including Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia and Lang Lang’s close friend and collaborator, Christoph Eschenbach. Playing these sonatas represents an enormous challenge for the performer; not only are they technically difficult, they also contain extraordinary emotional and structural complexity.
Other performers might fill out the rest of the program with easier works, but Lang Lang will not-he will conquer Bart³k’s extremely percussive Piano Sonata BB 88 Sz. 80 (his only composition in that genre), along with selections from Debussy’s delicate Preludes and Chopin’s elegant Polonaise Op. 53 in A flat Major. Lang Lang considers the Debussy a particularly interesting challenge: “Debussy is quite imaginative and fantastical because a different technique is required on the piano. Musically also it has unique phrasing and colors.” This program represents nearly the full range of moods possible in a piano recital-the only things missing are Bach’s cool restraint and Mozart’s joyous symmetries, but Lang Lang plays Bach and Mozart frequently enough, and he’s only 26. He plays several Mozart concertos frequently, and he mastered several of Bach’s most challenging works when he was only a child. His immediate plans include “more Spanish and French repertoire-and more Bach.”
Next Tuesday, it’ll be interesting to hear what the latest sensation in classical performance does when he has such a profoundly cerebral program on his hands. My best guess is that he will surprise everyone with his maturity and grace. He always does, even when he’s endorsing watches and sneakers (Adidas) and making his spiky-haired, light-hearted way around the world. Ultimately, Lang Lang is what he is-a young man with a sense of humor and remarkable talent. That he has chosen to show us both sides of his personality is ultimately to our benefit. The world has plenty of people with too much seriousness and not enough music in them. Next Tuesday, we’ll see what happens when it’s the other way around. I doubt people will shred his gloves and handkerchiefs, but they might go crazy in other ways. I strongly recommend finding out.
UCSB Arts and Lectures presents Lang Lang in a piano concert at the Granada, Tuesday, October 28, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.