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Exclusive Interview with Lang Lang: August 24, 2010

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On Friday, August 13, 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with piano phenomenon Lang Lang – whose initial recording on Sony Masterworks, Live in Vienna, was just released. In this fascinating Exclusive Interview, Lang Lang discusses his new, multi-format (CD, DVD, Blu-ray, 3-D, LP) release – recorded at Vienna’s famed Musikverein, and featuring a diverse recital of music by Beethoven, Albéniz, Prokofiev, and Chopin. Lang Lang also opens up about his formative years in China, and the challenges he and his countrymen faced learning to properly interpret the music of the Western classical tradition. The two also discuss Lang Lang’s burst into the public eye – following a fascinating premonition-like dream, as well as his impressive and inspiring work in the realm of music education, with the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, among other things. Don’t miss this special Classical Archives exclusive!

“When I perform, I simply follow the music, and my heart; everything comes from me in a very natural way – it’s not a show; and I believe in this way, it also touches the hearts of those in the audience.”
– Lang Lang

Nolan Gasser: Let's get started with what will undoubtedly be the hot seller of the late summer, your forthcoming Sony release Live in Vienna. It seems that with this release you have, among many other things, shown yourself faithful to your own mantra regarding the power and importance – as well as the unique magic – of live performance for classical music: in this case, not only giving your audience audio, but likewise video, of a very dynamic recital at Vienna's Musikverein [literally ‘Music Society’, the city’s most famous concert hall]. So, how exactly did you come to decide on this particular venue, and this type of an audio-visual release?

Lang Lang: Well, the Musikverein is such a great – and beautiful – hall, so that part was easy; and for this concert, I really wanted to feature a very “core classic repertoire”. This is the first time I’ve recorded any of the Beethoven sonatas – and, certainly, the ‘Appassionata’ [No.23 in F-, Op.57] is one of the grandest of all the Beethoven sonatas. But I also wanted to put a little “fresh air” into my repertoire, such as the wonderful Iberia Suite [Book 1] by Albéniz – and, likewise, I had never before recorded any Spanish repertoire, so this was also quite new. Then, I wanted to include the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata [‘War Sonata’ No.2: Stalingrad, Op.83], which is one of the most exciting pieces I’ve ever played! Finally, the encores are all dedicated to Chopin for the Chopin year [of his 200th Birthday in 2010].

But, in addition to the repertoire choices, it was also important for me that this recording be a combination of classical music and technology. So, we decided to film the concert at the Musikverien as a Blu-ray DVD; we even recorded it in 3-D – and this is probably going to be the first 3-D piano concert ever! So, in all, this is a great new beginning for me with Sony – which, as we all know, is a very technical company: they have wonderful cameras, and wonderful facilities, with many cool things being developed. And, you know, I kind of like being a part of this new vision – mixing new technology with a core, classic repertoire.

NG: I can imagine – and I think it makes perfect sense for your first Sony release.

Now, you've touched upon the very interesting program you’ve designed for this release. You mentioned the ‘Appasionata’ Sonata, but you also include an early Beethoven sonata – No.3 in C Major [Op.2, No.3]. I really love the juxtaposition of these two, giving a comparison of Beethoven’s early and middle periods – when he was at the height of his powers. Then the Albéniz and Prokofiev create such timbral and rhythmic contrasts, and finally some Chopin encores thrown in for good measure; that’s a terrific program, with such interesting choices! I'm wondering, in particular, how did Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata – which is a great work, but isn’t really one that would come first to mind in this kind of program – come to make the list?

LL: Well, I always like to play an exciting piece to finish a concert; and as you know, in my last live recording – which I did seven years ago at Carnegie Hall – I closed with Liszt’s arrangement of Don Giovanni [Réminiscences of Don Juan, S.418], which is also a great and exciting piece. So, I just tried to find the right repertoire to close the recital – to have the right impact, which means having a good “artistic” impact as well, and not just being a “show-off” piece. And I think that Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata is a perfect combination of artistic intensity and virtuosity; and it’s also quite a revolutionary piece.

NG: And it’s very Russian as well. Now, of all things, just yesterday, I had the honor of interviewing [pianist/conductor] Vladimir Ashkenazy – to talk about his new recording of the Bach Partitas. Of course, Ashkenazy has recorded all of the Prokofiev sonatas, and he talks about that distinctively “dark and savage” quality [chernozyom, literally “black soil”] heard in Prokofiev and other Russian music. In hearing your rendition, you too seemed intent on capturing that quality.

LL: Yes, exactly – it's very dark music; but at the same time, it has such a passionate main theme – to show the high emotion felt during this dark time, written of course during World War II.

NG: Right, the middle of the three “War Sonatas” [written 1939-44].

Now, you mentioned how this is the first time that you've recorded any of the Beethoven sonatas – and this certainly makes for a great beginning with Sony, to start your Beethoven cycle with this recording. This must be a rather big moment in a pianist's career, when they first tackle Beethoven sonatas in recording; and indeed, you must have been “chomping at the bit” to get started on this path.

LL: Yes, I mean, playing the Beethoven Sonatas is a real challenge – they’re quite difficult, really – but I’m excited. I chose two very different sonatas for this program: the first one is quite an early sonata – Op.2 – and is quite “classical”; and the second one [‘Appasionata’] shows the work of a real master. I really like the contrast between these two pieces – I kind of grew up with them, but never had the chance to record them. In fact, I didn't have a chance to really learn them until I worked with people like Gary Graffman [Lang Lang’s piano teacher at Curtis], Daniel Barenboim, and Christoph Eschenbach. Then I really was able to “get into” the works you know; when I was a teenager, I would always learn pieces like that, but you don't really get to understand them correctly – you just learn the notes.

NG: And as you say, once that audience comes in, then it really becomes a performance – and an experience.

LL: Exactly.

NG: Now, you also mentioned this range of media formats, which is really interesting; you're obviously a bit of a technophile, and working with Sony must be great in that regard. So, why release the concert in this huge range of formats – not only CD, DVD, Blue-ray, and 3-D, but even as an LP?

LL: Oh, yes [laughs]! Because in these days, you know, there are many lovers of classical music who like the older, traditional sound that an LP produces. You know, I never had released an LP before in my life – and when Sony brought up the idea of releasing not only the modern, advanced technology formats, but also to show the traditional side of classical music, I thought it was a brilliant idea! And I too want to hear what I sound like on those LP discs – I haven't listened to the LP disc yet, to be honest with you. I’ve listened to the CD and DVD many times already – to check the playing and that kind of thing, but I haven’t heard the LP sound yet; so, I'm actually as curious as everybody else to hear how that will sound.

NG: Well, as you know, there are a lot of people who swear that the LP recordings of the 1960s and 70s – in analogue format – had the best quality, better and richer than digital; so, I'm going to be curious myself – and maybe you're going to inspire all classical lovers to dust off their record players, and put this one on.

Now the press release for this recording – and some other things I've read – also mentions your association with Sony Electronics, and that you have other plans for music and technology: to, as you say, make classical music more approachable to a new generation. Can you talk about your work with Sony Electronics?

LL: Well, 3-D is the biggest thing at the moment, because as you know, Sony is very heavily promoting its 3-D televisions. I already have a Sony 3-D television at home, and I can turn a normal TV picture into 3-D. But for it to have the best impact, you really need actual 3-D content – made with 3-D cameras; so with this new concert recording, we have a synergistic project: a 3-D video supporting 3-D television players!

NG: Well, it really is quite brilliant, and a little example of why your career is so successful – to be thinking outside of the box as you do, and I’ll look forward to getting my 3-D glasses on! I just hope that your flying hands won't scare me …

LL: [Laughs] Right!

NG: And I understand that you'll be presenting this same recital program as part of your upcoming tour?

LL: Yes, of course.

NG: Well, terrific.

Now if we can, I wouldn't mind backing up a bit and touching on your early, more formative years. You were quite a prodigy, of course, winning a number of very prestigious awards by your early teens, and in fact you've often brought up the impact of your first musical memory, at age 2: The Cat Concerto cartoon of Tom & Jerry – which I too grew up on (I also love the Rabbit of Seville with Bugs Bunny, if you know that one). This strikes me as being quite potentially significant: for one thing, Tom, like you, was a very dazzling performer – at least when he wasn't fighting Jerry. I know you come from a musical family – your father plays the erhu. I'm wondering if there was a lot of music making at home, and if it was mainly traditional Chinese music, or if there was a lot of exposure to Western classical music, outside of Tom & Jerry, that is?

LL: It was a mix; we’d always have family concerts: there were many musicians who lived in the same neighborhood, in the same dormitory – many of whom were also my father's friends as a kid. They all played some kind of instrument, and they always combined different kinds of music: they played some Mozart and Bach, but at the same time they played a lot of Chinese music; and they also did a lot of improvisation, so it was a very lively environment. People would cook and play music. I remember all the parents used to sing songs while cooking, or sing while taking a bath; you always heard music in that wonderful dormitory.

NG: And do you have any siblings who also took up the piano?

LL: No, unfortunately, I grew up in China under the “one-child policy”; so it was just me.

NG: Well, your parents must certainly count their blessings for the successes that you’ve had. Of course, I've also read that you experienced some challenges during your years as a young pianist – for example, at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, with one of your piano professors. Clearly these challenges only made you more determined and – as you’ve relayed, it was the power of music itself that helped carry you through some difficult times, and gave you hope: for example, there's a story of you playing Mozart’s Piano Sonata K.330, and regaining optimism.

So looking back, what do you see as being some of the key impacts of your early music education in China: was it technique, was it discipline, was it passion – was it all of those?

LL: Yes, it was the combination of everything. Of course, to succeed in classical music at that time in China, you really needed to have a good teacher, in order to understand the structure inside the music – because I didn’t come from a traditional classical music country such as Germany or Russia, or from a place that created its own classical music tradition in the way that America did. This was the early 1980's, and the traditional Chinese scales I heard growing up are quite different from Western music. Of course, we learned a lot of basic things about classical music, including the importance of having strong discipline. But if you look at the whole picture, there's still something missing: how to interpret classical music in a way that pianists in Germany do, or those who grow up with Western culture. So, it was really necessary for us as Chinese musicians to travel to the West in order to better learn classical music: to gain knowledge of the style and the spirit of the music, as well as to understand the environment that produced so many great pianists and musicians – by playing chamber music, and accompanying the great artists when they visited; and in general to learn the culture, the literature, and the history behind the music – the whole package.

NG: Yes, and of course you did just that, traveling to the US to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in 1997, at the age of 15. Then, two years later, your career really took off – following your fill-in triumph [of André Watts] playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony; it seems that stars are so often born in such last-minute replacements – I think of Bernstein filling in for an ailing Bruno Walter, which sprung him to stardom [in 1943]. Can you recall that night – and did you have a premonition that this performance would change your life?

LL: In fact, yes – and that was a magical night! I had just come back from an audition with Maestro Eschenbach at the Ravinia Festival [in Highland Park, Illinois] the day before, and that same night I had a wild dream: I was sailing over Lake Michigan and flying over downtown Chicago, with the piano as my airplane – made up of keys on a prop plane, then a small jet, then a jumbo jet, and finally a rocket ship at the end; a crazy dream! Then, the next early morning, I received a call asking me to return to Ravinia immediately to replace André Watts – can you believe it? I had no time to think about anything; it felt like I was still in the same dream, heading back on the rocket ship, zooming around the globe!

NG: Wow, that is a premonition – amazing! Of course, this then launched what has become a major career, perhaps unrivaled in classical music. Now, things don’t just happen by accident; and so I’m wondering if already, in the early years of your career, you envisioned it exploding as it has, and if you had any particular models or mentors, in China or the US, that helped shape your career vision?

LL: This was indeed my dream – to have this kind of career; and I’m very fortunate that it has come true, and in such a short period of time! As for having mentors – yes, I have two, both of them in the US: Christoph Eschenbach and my teacher at Curtis, Gary Graffman; I wouldn’t have my career without them, that’s for sure.

NG: Now, beyond your consummate technique, part of what defines your artistry is your performance style and your stage persona – including your rather physical approach to performance; so, to what degree are you conscious of your movements as you play, and in what way does this allow you to communicate with the music – and to your audience?

LL: When I perform, I simply follow the music, and my heart; everything comes from me in a very natural way – it’s not a show; and I believe in this way, it also touches the hearts of those in the audience. At least so far, I’ve found it works in this way.

NG: Yes, indeed it does. Okay, let’s talk a bit about repertoire – so far, you’ve focused largely on 19th century music (Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninov), but also late-18th (Mozart, Haydn), and then a bit of Modern (including now the Albéniz and Prokofiev) and some contemporary; so, going forward, are there some composers or repertoires that you are interesting in exploring in future Sony releases?

LL: Well, I’m always working on a pretty wide repertoire, and I always try to enrich my music by exploring new music. As for future albums, I’m currently working with Sony on a couple of different ideas – but can’t say yet what the next one will be.

NG: Well, we’ll look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Now, in recent years, you’ve worked with a number of Chinese composers – most famously Tan Dun (his Piano Concerto, the film score for “The Banquet”), but also Chen Quigang (his piano concerto); and you’ve also played traditional and quasi-traditional piano pieces at your recitals – such as the “Spring Dance” and “Autumn Moon on a Spring Lake”; so now, as you carry on your ambassador role for Chinese culture (as you’re now doing with those short ads alongside Yao Ming and John Woo) will you continue to focus on promoting Chinese music?

LL: Yes, for sure – and I feel that I’m very lucky, and that it’s a great honor for me to be an ambassador for Chinese culture, and I take it very seriously. Every day and everywhere I go, I try to spread Chinese culture through my music. The most direct way is when I perform Chinese pieces as encores to my concerts, which I do a lot – and I’m happy to say that the audiences really like it, so I’ll continue to do that quite a bit.

NG: Sounds good. Now, if I can touch upon at least one of your other activities and accomplishments: one major dimension involves your passion for music education: there is first the amazing, though nebulous, “Lang Lang Effect”, credited for inspiring some 40 million Chinese kids to take up the piano; and now I guess the Lang Lang International Music Foundation has begun to formalize these efforts in music education; so, what are some of the Foundation’s specific goals?

LL: Yes, for me, this is extremely important: I feel that music opened the door to the world for me; it changed my life so drastically, that I wanted to try to help it open doors for other children as well. Of course, things were very different for me in China than they are for today’s youth, especially in America. Unfortunately, there’s a stereotype of classical music being very old, and even boring – and I’d like to help change this outlook. My message has been – and will be – that classical music can be exciting, interesting, and fun! I hope that I can encourage kids to give classical music a chance – to see it as I do: an entrance into self-expression and a window of opportunity. I think that if children have the opportunity to hear classical music in a non-threatening way, the beauty of the music will become more accessible to them, and they will appreciate it, and engage with it. I think the days of stuffy classical music are passing us by, and I hope that my message can help spark a new passion and interest in classical music for the next generation.

NG: And how involved are you personally in the Foundation – and who are some of your key partners and collaborators – besides Oprah, that is [in May 2009, Lang Lang – along with three young pianists – represented the Foundation on the Oprah Winfrey Show, as part of “Oprah’s Search for the World’s Smartest and Most Talented Kids.”].

LL: Right, she is a great partner [laughs]. So, the Foundation is led by our Executive Director, Cari Hills, who works very hard to help us reach our main goals – which is to find tomorrow’s great pianists, and to champion music education using new technology, as well as to build new audiences for classical music. We don’t want to re-invent the wheel, so we’re looking to partner with organizations that have already created good models, and are run by leaders who are passionate about what they’re doing. We try to find partners who have a similar mission, where we can build programs that I myself can get involved with: to play, and so to help inspire children to become musicians, as well as audience members. It makes me sad to see music programs being cut from schools, and I want do something about that.

I like to see myself as an advocate for music education, and I’m trying to help support programs that work, and that are ready to grow and expand. If my voice can help them get visibility and more money, so that they can reach even more children, then I’m very happy. We’ve already found a lot of good partners, and work with groups such as MENC [The National Association for Music Education], SupportMusic, Save the Music, and the Pulse Program of the Berklee College of Music. We also try to find businesses that are interested in being good “corporate citizens”, and who are willing to help support music and the Arts. It’s a really exciting time for me, and it’s wonderful to have the chance to give back to something that I feel so strongly about.

NG: Well, what you are doing is very commendable, indeed – and I wish you and your Foundation much success. And so, with all these efforts you’re involved in, am I right to assume that you’re pretty optimistic as to the future of classical music – despite the cuts in music in the schools we see all around us?

LL: Absolutely – classical music survives, and continues to thrive for two very good reasons, I think: first, it appeals to everyone; and second, it’s always changing. People from all around the world listen, play, and enjoy this kind of music. And it’s recognized everywhere around the world as one of man’s greatest accomplishments; so how could it ever disappear? The situation in the US is maybe different from most countries in Europe, because this music is not so deeply connected to American history. But classical music will never die, because if you look at its history, this music developed and evolved based on how people naturally react to harmony, and to sound – it was created to suit the human ear.

So, for the 21st century, what classical music needs is just a makeover in the way it is presented: in previous generations, people valued things like prestige. If you look at pictures of famous conductors from the past, they were very serious, and most were old. But today, it’s the post-modern world, where it’s all about the thrill of instant contact and self-expression. I’m positive that classical music will keep changing, and will carry on for many, many future generations. We just need to be creative about how we reach the kids, and make classical music accessible. It’ll be a journey, but we’ll do it.

NG: Well, as the expression goes, “from your mouth to God’s ear” – and with your efforts, I am more confident as well.

So, I have one final question for you: among your many collaborations with other A-list classical artists, you’ve lately had some nice jams with pop and jazz artists – such as Herbie Hancock, Wyclef Jean, and even Paul McCartney; do you have any other such collaborations in the works – perhaps involving some original works by you?

LL: Hmm… well, I always am looking forward to new collaborations with artists in other styles – and who knows who the next one will be [laughs]?

NG: Well, we’ll just have to wait and see! Thank you so much for your time, Lang Lang. Congratulations on the new release, and good luck with the efforts of your Foundation.

LL: Thank you so much; it was a pleasure.

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