Virtuosity and sneakers

Bocelli and adidas are in pianist Lang Lang's purview

by David Patrick Stearns

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

2 April 2008


The clothes are getting wilder. The hair is a testament to the gravity-defying properties of mousse. And now, Chinese pianist Lang Lang has made a collaborative recording with Andrea Bocelli. It’s on a new compilation titled “The Magic of Lang Lang.”

Bocelli fans are likely to be fine with it. But for those who fret over Lang Lang’s becoming swept up in the hyper-commercialized aspects of the music industry, the recording represents a line crossed into what often seems like almost mandatory tastelessness in “Classical Crossover.”

Then there’s that YouTube video of him titled “Lang Lang Gone Mad,” in which he playfully demonstrates parallels between Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and kung fu. He’s touring with the Philadelphia Orchestra to China this spring, with repertoire that makes some listeners wince - the committee-written, Mao-era “Yellow River Concerto.”

Lang Lang offers discreet assurance that clothes and mousse have a limited place in his world: “It’s marketing!” he said, on the phone from Houston.

Now only 25 - and having just appeared on the Grammy Awards telecast - Lang Lang has been there, done that so globally and repeatedly you have to wonder: Are there any new things left for a concert pianist to experience? There are. These big events could coexist only on the singular horizon of Lang Lang: a special line of adidas sneakers and a disc of Leoncavallo songs with Placido Domingo, both to be issued this year.

On the former, which will be available in the United States: “It’s a limited edition, 100,000 pairs. I kind of put a pedal shape on the bottom of the shoe. And it’s black. That’s kind of classy!” And to be expected for a musician whose visibility, unique among classical pianists, is such that he will play a part in the opening ceremonies at the summer Olympics in Beijing.

On the latter: “I played the World Cup concert and did a pop song with Domingo, just for fun. After that, we thought we’d do something serious. I said, `You name it!’ He said `Leoncavallo’ (known solely for the opera “I Pagliacci”). I said, `Who?’ ...

“Domingo’s voice, it’s not just singing. He’s making this incredible spiritual vibration. It goes really deep into your heart.” Lang Lang also admires the beauty of the Bocelli voice, but as “popular opera.”

More seriously, he’s recording Chopin piano concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic (and touring with the orchestra next season) and then, at long last, he brings Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” into his active repertoire after years of playing it privately.

At Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, he studied the piece with Edward Aldwell (one of the great Bach pianists of his generation). Now, Lang Lang works with pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim, meeting him every eight weeks at Barenboim’s Berlin home. That’s why Lang Lang gave up his own apartment in that city. “When I go to Berlin and stay by myself, there’s no food to eat. German food? Oh God!” he says. “It’s better that I stay with Barenboim, who has a great cook.”

So where’s his poised, attractive mother, known as one of the great Chinese cooks in Philadelphia? She went to the Grammy Awards with him and found the whole thing a bit too loud. Otherwise, you don’t often see her or his father - often thought to be the power behind Lang Lang - in tow. “My speed is so fast for them,” he explains. “My father needed a break. He got tired of travel. They’ll still come back for the Philadelphia and Carnegie Hall concerts. I’ll have an opportunity to eat my mother’s home dumplings again.”

What a difference between this and only seven years ago, when he, his parents Guo-ren Lang and Xiulan Zhou, his Steinway grand, and hundreds of snapshots (his father is a shutterbug) were stuffed into a small apartment in Philadelphia. Triumphant recitals in the New York area were followed by a ride home on the Peter Pan bus.

The road between then and now - which includes a townhouse in Philadelphia’s Queen Village and a flat in Manhattan near Carnegie Hall - would seem to have been clean and clear: He had an early recording contact with Telarc, which graciously stepped aside when Deutsche Grammophon came to call. Now, places that don’t normally carry classical recordings, like Best Buy, have the sleek, leather-clad pianist peering from the cover of “The Magic of Lang Lang.” He has as many concerts as he can handle - or at least he did until a couple of weeks ago, when a three-week world tour with the China Philharmonic was abruptly and embarrassingly canceled for lack of sponsorship money.

Retroactively, Lang Lang reveals other incidents that characterized China’s oddly haphazard attitude toward its burgeoning classical music talent. During the New York Philharmonic’s recent Asian tour, its Chinese principal oboist was concerto soloist in only one place - Hong Kong - and wasn’t requested elsewhere. Lang Lang recalls that the Philadelphia Orchestra had to do some serious insisting in order to take him on its 2001 Asian tour - even though he’d been a celebrity in China before coming to the United States to study.

“The (Chinese) presenter said they wanted somebody big, somebody international,” he says. “They said they didn’t want a teenager.”

The orchestra stood up for him - “and it put me on a new level (career-wise),” the pianist says - though the incident was tense. Lang Lang wasn’t as famous in 2001. Says then-Philadelphia Orchestra president Joseph Kluger: “Our attitude was, `Hey, look at this kid!’ We wanted to take him on tour wherever we were going.”

Since then, Lang Lang has returned to Asia almost as often as he returns to Philadelphia, his visits to Korea being particularly colorful thanks to packs of adoring teenage girls. However, his success can be exaggerated; though his recordings often shoot to the top of the Billboard magazine sales charts in the United States, he’s not in the Pavarotti Zone, and enjoyed only a momentary bump in sales following his appearance on the Grammy Awards.

But his brief collaboration with Bocelli may be as far into crossover as Lang Lang is willing to go - or can go, having expressed ambivalence toward pop music dating to his teen years. “I’m not interested in making a crossover record,” he says, “but I am interested in expanding the classical world.”

He talks about nonflashy stuff, like starting a foundation for young musicians. “I just want to be someone who can be helpful,” he says. “Maybe not a big help, but if I can do a little bit ... at the end of the day, it’s sharing your true feelings (with music).”

Fine. But is that what was going on in the Prokofiev/kung fu video on YouTube? “I did it for French television. I think I was 18 or 19,” he says. “I was a kung fu freak. ... It’s OK. It’s YouTube. It’s a wild place anyway!”

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