On September 29, at 7:30 p.m., Urbana’s Krannert Center will feature one of the true “rock stars” of classical world, pianist Lang Lang. At 34, he is near the top of the performing world of the classical piano with a dynamic, even flamboyant, style that excites audiences and inevitably causes stirrings among the more conservative ranks of the classical world.
Krannert audiences have enjoyed his craftsmanship before. He performed a Mozart concerto in April of 2010 and poured considerable emotion into this rather traditional concert piece. His dedication to making classical resonate out of the ordinary is an essential part of every performance. This has led to such reviews as this from the Chicago Tribune—“The biggest, most exciting young keyboard talent I have encountered in many a year of attending piano recitals.”
He is the son of a musician. His father played the erhu, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, and Lang Lang heard much of this tradition growing up Shenyang, China. But, he says in his autobiography that at age two, the very young Lang Lang saw a Tom and Jerry cartoon, The Classical Cat, which featured Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2. That brief blending of animated entertainment and a master of the 19th century’s romantic movement began a life-long love affair with Western classical music.
His parents began to nurture this love affair almost at once as he began piano lessons at age three. At age five, he performed his first public recital and won his first competition. After a series of ups and downs, he won a major competition at age twelve in 1994 in Beijing. By fourteen, he was playing the concertos of Chopin on national television. One year later, he left for the United States with his father for Philadelphia’s famed Curtis Institute.
There he flourished under the mentoring of legendary pianist Gary Graffman. He had to reorient his goals as Graffman did not emphasize competitions, but Graffman emphasized the “spiritual” fine-tuning of a piano master. As Lang Lang described it in his 2008 autobiography he wrote with Michael French, Graffman said—“While some teachers at Curtis wish their students to compete, I prefer mine to to ban such an idea from their thoughts. This allows them to concentrate on on other aspects of playing the piano.”
Lang Lang—“What aspects?”
Graffman suggested intense study to develop Lang’s keyboard nuances and promised the teenage sensation he would get an agent who would put him on the substitute list for concert appearances. That big break happened at the age 17, when he substituted for Andre Watts and played a Tchaikovsky concerto with the Chicago Symphony to great acclaim. The youthful sensation was on his way to becoming a major star of the concert world.
By 2003, he was recording with DG and such classical illuminaries as Daniel Barenboim. In 2010, Sony Classics took him under their umbrella and have promoted him as one of their “rock star” classical artists. At age 34, he has nearly twenty CDs to his credit and a list of rave reviews to go with them.
Big audiences hardly phase him as he has played for the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where more than five billion people heard his artistry. He is heard on the film scores of The Painted Veil, My Week with Marilyn and The Banquet. To these international audience introductions, he can add such events as the 2006 FIFA championship, the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies and many others.
The big question with such a show-business classical artist is: Is his artistry compromised? This is perhaps best answered by The Times of London’s music critic—“I can think of no other classical artist who has achieved Lang Lang’s broad appeal without dumbing down”.
Coda: He is also the author, with American editors, of four books to date, including two volumes of The Lang Lang Piano Academy: Mastering the Piano. His autobiography, Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story appears in two formats with one for younger readers.
While the $55 tickets for Lang Lang’s September 29th concert have sold out, Krannert Center is still adding names to the waiting list, and students may still be able to secure Hot Seats. For more information about either, please contact the ticket office between 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., either in person or by calling 217-333-6280.
Photo by Harold Hoffmann, courtesy of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
UPDATE: We’ve been informed that the majority of the seats in the house were sold to Illinois students (at the $10 rate). It’s pretty amazing that a classical artist can attract such numbers of young people.