No stranger to raised eyebrows, Chinese pianist Lang Lang takes the memoir genre into uncomfortable new ground in Journey of a Thousand Miles. At the outset, you wonder how much any 26-year-old has to tell, particularly a pianist whose relatively quick rise to the top means that his worldview might be limited to five-star hotels—or the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.
Prior to this lush life, though, Lang Lang’s student life in China was downright squalid at times —- made worse by psychological abuse from what seems like an insanely driven father who, at one point, ordered his son to kill himself over a career setback. Such behavior continued in less extreme form after Lang Lang’s 1997 entry into the Curtis Institute of Music: He simply had to be “Number One”, assuming one can ever say, in any artistic circle, what exactly constitutes that status.
As much as the book is a substantial, well-observed and ultimately endearing memoir, it’s also a Pandora’s box of issues with ramifications that Lang Lang perhaps isn’t even aware of. To anyone who observed him in Philadelphia, Lang Guoren, Lang Lang’s father, seemed remarkably benign. They were an apparently united front as the pianist made his way, first winning competitions in China, then working with Gary Graffman at Curtis, filling in for Andre Watts at a 1999 Chicago Symphony Orchestra gala, and going on to the world’s stages with recordings for Deutsche Grammophon.
Lang Guoren hovered nearby, speaking no English, snapping endless pictures of his son and anyone else walking through the door of their small apartment at 13th and Spruce Streets. Charmingly, he performed encores with his son on the erhu, a Chinese string instrument.
Insightfully, Lang Lang explains their relationship like a latter-day version of the American Depression-era mentality. China’s Cultural Revolution killed career ambitions in his father’s generation, while the country’s one-child-per-family rule means that vicarious living through children can’t be spread over several siblings.
So when Lang Lang showed early promise in his native Shenyang, the family decided that, at age eight or so, he and his father would go to Beijing for further study. They would be supported only by his mother’s telephone-operator salary and live in unheated rooms an hour’s bicycle ride from the Central Conservatory of Music.
His pre-admission teacher had nothing good to say about his playing, to which his father had one prescription: Practice harder. When finally rejected by that teacher—on a dreadful day when they bicycled through rain mixed with sand that had blown in from the Gobi Desert—his father ordered Lang Lang to jump off the balcony or take an overdose of pills. Instead, Lang Lang tried to destroy his own hands by punching walls, screaming, “I hate my hands. I hate you. I hate the piano.” Though restrained by his father, he refused to touch the piano for weeks.
There’s an intense father/son bond behind all of this; after all, the two slept in the same bed during those Beijing years. But usually, such “Daddy Dearest” books aren’t written until Daddy is no longer around. Any awkwardness that might normally result from such a memoir has, apparently, been worked out. Lang Guoren is still in evidence, having graduated to high-def video camera, and acknowledged in a New Yorker profile that everything in the book is true, however painful it may be for him. End of chapter? Yes, as far as the book is concerned.
At the Curtis Institute, Lang Lang’s teachers knew little of that violence back in Beijing, though uberdominant is the word you hear in Curtis circles to describe Lang Guoren. The father attended all of his son’s lessons, Graffman said recently, and argued against Lang Lang’s taking time off from the piano to learn enough English to navigate The Charlie Rose Show. When Lang Lang’s closest associates told the pianist to tone down his stage manner, the fact that he didn’t was generally assumed to be on the overriding advice of his father.
But as stage parents go, Lang Guoren isn’t the worst. During lessons, Graffman said, “he sat in the corner very quietly, and at no point interfered. There were a few nice occasions when I’d make suggestions and you could see the father smiling.”
“The problem wasn’t his attitude but the tone he set for other parents. It became more competitive,” said Curtis’ dean, Robert Fitzpatrick, recently. “We’ve made it clear, we’ve posted signs, that parents are welcome in our building but not upstairs in the studios or in rehearsals unless specifically invited by a faculty member ... They want to protect their own children, but they also spy on others to compare talents.”
In worse cases, one student, upon turning 18, didn’t want his family to have his new phone number. Though Fitzpatrick knows of no confirmed instances of physical abuse, he knows some cultures still believe “spare the rod and spoil the child.” “It’s something we have to deal with and hope that students understand that it’s very difficult to change the parents,” he said. “We can only intervene when there is some action taken within the building.”
Such is the skewed reality when classical music—that supposed source of joy and enlightenment—becomes the crucial future of an entire family that stakes everything on an iffy career in a foreign country. Any command of reality becomes more difficult considering that even successful artists aren’t necessarily told the straight story. Lang Lang illustrates that with a too-dramatic-to-be-true account of his first Philadelphia Orchestra tour in 2001: The orchestra, with dates already set in China, wanted to bring Lang Lang home for the first time since he left to study at Curtis. Chinese presenters wanted a more internationally established talent.
In his book, Lang Lang said the orchestra threatened to cancel. Not really, the orchestra’s then-president Joseph Kluger said recently. The cancellation threat wasn’t in the pianist’s imagination, but appears to have come from then-music director Wolfgang Sawallisch, who knew how to inspire loyalty.
The triumph, perhaps, is that Lang Lang seems remarkably unmauled, by his father or by the music industry. In the book, he admits that he can’t date a girl without thinking that he should really be practicing. But that’s the kind of person he would have become, anyway. Both Graffman and Fitzpatrick believe Lang Lang’s high-octane motivation truly comes from within—as does, more importantly, his rare and considerable talent.