About to turn 30, Lang Lang is looking for new challenges

Wed May 09, 2012 at 11:45 am

By David Fleshler

Lang Lang will perform a recital Saturday night at the Civic Opera House of Bach, Chopin and Schubert. Photo: Felix Broede/Deutsche Grammophon

Lang Lang was late picking up his phone, having been busy at Carnegie Hall preparing for an upcoming recital. His mission at the hallowed concert hall: Choosing the right piano.

Although the celebrated Chinese pianist has long been identified with Steinways — even to the point of having the company produce a special children’s model named for him  — each Steinway is different, and the requirements of each program vary.  So before a recital, he sits down to test drive the two, three or four pianos available.

“I need a big personality as a piano,” said Lang Lang, who performs a recital Saturday night at the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Civic Opera House. “The piano needs to have the ability to produce different range of colors. It can’t be just beautiful sound or just loud sounds. We need to have a combination of all kinds of sounds in the same piano. It’s very challenging.”

Lang Lang’s usual routine is to take the competing instruments through 250 years of keyboard music. “Normally I try the pieces that I perform. I do that first. Then you try the Goldberg Variations by Bach or you try some Brahms Intermezzi or you try some big Romantic pieces — Liszt or Rachmaninoff — or you play a little bit of Bartók to try the percussive sounds.”

It is a solitary activity, and reflects his continued commitment to the fundamentals of his art, despite the Today show appearances, collaborations with pop musicians, ceremonial performances at huge events such as the Beijing Olympics and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, and an expanding range of philanthropic activities.

Lang Lang, who celebrates his 30th birthday next month, has already achieved as much stardom as any classical performer in a generation. He performs with the world’s greatest orchestras in the great halls, releases recordings regularly and has begun using his name and his success to support projects in which he believes, such as educating the next generation of musicians.

“Obviously I would like to keep playing with the best orchestras, best recital halls around the world, like what I’m doing now,” he said. “But in the same time, I’m also thinking how to do more work with UNICEF that I have a long-term relationship with as an ambassador. And then I’m also starting to work with the World Wildlife Fund, which is protecting the animals.”

He is most eager to talk about the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, an organization he founded to educate and encourage young pianists around the world through master classes, mentoring and massive performance projects called “101 Pianists,” held in various countries.

“Our aim is to help new generation of artists to achieve their musical dreams,” he said. “We have a hundred kids from different communities to get together side-by-side, four hands, one piano. And then they will play with me in the end of their working session. So I come and then play Schubert or play Brahms or Beethoven, for a hundred pianists. We’ve been already in many cities around the world. We’ve been twice in San Francisco, twice in London and next month in Berlin.”

His visit to Chicago will be a return to the scene of his career-making breakout performance. When still a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, Lang Lang served as a last-minute substitute for an ailing Andre Watts in a concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia. “17-year-old Sub Steals the Show at Ravinia Gala,” read the Tribune headline on John von Rhein’s glowing review of his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

But when Lang Lang performs Saturday in Chicago, it won’t be at Symphony Center. It will be at the home of the Lyric Opera, where his appearance will be an unusual event, both for the opera house — more commonly a setting for Puccini arias than Chopin Etudes — and for the pianist. Lang Lang said he was looking forward to the opportunity to expand the audience for piano recitals through the performance, saying he expected there to be a sprinkling of people more likely to attend La Traviata than a piano recital.

“I think while I start playing in the opera house we will have a slightly different audience to come for concerts,” he said. “So we will have a concert audience, but also some opera audiences. So that’s why I find a new area for piano recitals. I think it’s nice to have a slightly new audience, an increased audience, to come for piano recitals.”

His program, the same one he will perform later this month at Carnegie Hall, consists of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, and Chopin’s 12 Etudes Op. 25. He feels particularly close to the Chopin Etudes, he said. He has played them since he was 10, and one of the milestones of his early career was a performance of the complete Etudes at the age of 13 in Beijing.

“They’re very beautiful, and it’s real, real artwork,” he said. “Because you have 12 different kind of characters, and somehow it’s very important to play those pieces to get the personalities of those etudes. And for me, Chopin Etudes are not exercise etudes. It’s more about music making.”

Lang Lang performs 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Civic Opera House. lyricopera.org, 312-332-2244.

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