November 10, 2012
In his Manhattan apartment, Central Park a delicious green and brown autumnal carpet 36 storeys below, the superstar pianist Lang Lang shows me the hand exercises he employs after pounding the keys in concert hall after concert hall. The 30-year-old Chinese musician, boyish-pretty with jetted quiff, stretches his digits, rolls his shoulders and bends his elbows. “I have a massage once every two days on tour. Since I was a teenager I worried about injuring my hands. But you just buy insurance.” He guffaws. “It’s a good psychological way of escaping the darkness of the threat of injury.”
The laughter is deceiving. In Journey of a Thousand Miles, his 2008 autobiography, Lang says injuring his arms and hands became “his biggest fear”, realised in 2003 when he hurt himself hitting the ivory keys of one piano too hard. How much are his hands insured for – $1 million? “More than that,” Lang says in almost fluent, only slightly broken English. “I’ve put more money in over the years… I think $15 million.” Does he ever think, “My hands are worth $15 million”? “Oh, they’re worth more than that. You don’t want to exchange your health for it. I wouldn’t exchange $100 million for unhealthy hands. I just wouldn’t do it.” Another guffaw. “No amount of insurance matches the value of my hands.”
Lang doesn’t say this arrogantly; he simply, passionately loves the piano and making music. Hailed as “the hottest artist on the classical music planet” by The New York Times, this modest musician signed to Sony Music for a reported $3 million two years ago. His CDs – the latest, The Chopin Album, includes a piece he first performed aged 5 – sell in the hundreds of thousands. He played at the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert in June.
There have been Lang Lang-branded pianos (created by Steinway), scarves and trainers. His appearances at concert halls around the world attract adulatory fans – “I can feel their passion,” he says – and although critics have carped, Lang often plays the showman, standing at the piano. He’s quieter in person, courtly even: before every concert he eats fruit, a roast beef sandwich and drinks Earl Grey or chamomile tea. “I have never gotten drunk in my life,” he says. “I would much rather play sports or go on a date than get drunk. I don’t have a problem with it; I just don’t touch it.”
Lang’s apartment is glossy: floor-to-ceiling windows, TV spanning one wall, a letter from Tchaikovsky given as an 18th birthday gift on another. He is “moving away from commercial branding to education, I want to give back to society”, running the Lang Lang International Music Foundation to encourage young musicians and the Lang Lang Music World arts school in China, where he is said to have inspired 40 million children to take up the piano (“I ask children why they are playing and it seems more for love than because their parents have told them to”).
His school has 85 students and is in the city of Shenzhen, “known as Piano City, there are so many children learning it”.
If on stage Lang plays the rock star, in person this is muted to a puppyish enthusiasm, a lightness contrasting starkly with his upbringing in Shenyang, northern China, where his parents bought his first piano when he was 1. The young Lang was inspired by Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which he heard on a Tom and Jerry cartoon. While his mother, Xiulan Zhou, was a calm, loving presence whom Lang felt very close to, Lang Guoren, his father, was so fixated on his being the best he moved himself and Lang to Beijing, where one sneering teacher whom Lang nicknamed Professor Angry almost crushed his spirit. (“I teach kids differently; I’m very clear but not harsh – I wouldn’t want them to go through what I did.”) Neighbours complained about the din of Lang’s endless practising. His fierce father was once so furious at what he perceived as his son’s lack of commitment that he encouraged Lang, then 9, to commit suicide by taking an overdose of pills, then when his son refused, told him to jump out of their apartment window. In Lang’s autobiography, he recalls begging his father, “Stop! You’re crazy! Leave me alone! I don’t want to die! I’m not going to die!”
“You must play perfect,” his dad would say. “You must not make a mistake. Not one mistake.” (When, later, Lang injured his hand it was a strange relief: he caught up with friends and relaxed.) In China, Lang’s father recently published his autobiography, My Thirty Years With Lang Lang. “I cried many times reading it, I really did,” confesses his son. “It was very emotional. He explains why he was so iron-faced: it’s very Oriental – the father is strict because otherwise the boy will not listen. He felt he had to be strict in order for me to achieve exceptional success. He will never forgive himself for some things. He doesn’t want to talk about the moment he tried to make me commit suicide. He says that’s probably his biggest mistake. He feels incredible pain when people ask about it. He made a wrong decision. I made a right decision not to listen to him.”
What if he had listened to him? “My father would have jumped from the building too, I think,” Lang says quickly. “He’s not going to let just me die. That’s what I believe. Thank God it didn’t happen.” Afterwards Lang hit his hands repeatedly against a wall, “because I didn’t want to play any more. I hated it.
I always wanted to be a pianist, but it wasn’t like after piano there was nothing else. I was pretty good at my other studies.”
Was his father too hard on him? “I’d say there were some moments it was unnecessary because I was not the type of person who hated the piano. I loved it. I didn’t need the pressure. I think he was scared I would not achieve in my career like he hadn’t in his – that was the shadow.” His father played the erhu, a traditional Chinese two-string fiddle, “and he was very good in his region, but it was a Chinese instrument so not many people would have listened to him”. The Cultural Revolution, which forced so many artists and musicians away from their crafts, also helped scupper his father’s dream. “He flashed back to that when bringing me up. He didn’t want what happened to him to happen to me.”
Also, Lang adds, “Artistically you need to be pushed so you can achieve. My father is an educator, he has a heart and he encourages and challenges me to do better all the time.” Lang gained entrance to the Beijing Central Music Conservatory, won competitions, then studied at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. His break came at 17 when he was asked to stand in for another pianist for the Chicago Symphony. Orchestras from New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland asked him to play with them. The conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim became his mentor. He told Lang: “We should not just learn music from our life experience, but also learn life experience through music. In this way, no matter how old you are, you can play something incredible.”
Lang remembers his first time in a five-star hotel. “I was so excited about the mini-bar, swimming pool, room service – ‘Wow, touring is cool,’ I thought.” But he once wrote he had “to wonder what’s out there beyond the luxury hotels and restaurants. I can never forget where I came from – the poverty, the loneliness.”
“It was challenging,” Lang says of youthful fame. “People have high expectations. They say, ‘He’ll grow up and won’t play as well. Is he still going to be this good in two years?’ Today, everyone is questioning whether Justin Bieber will go far after he’s 20. For me it was annoying: I just focused on the art. Advice is great sometimes, but it can be harmful: you must not forget what you’re doing. You mustn’t think about stardom.”
Still, he was “heavily influenced” by popular culture, amazed by large numbers of people knowing who Michael Jordan was. “You could go to any pharmacy or store and see their connection to the public. With classical music you have to go to a special section of the store to find our music. I learnt from Yo-Yo Ma [the American cellist], whose CDs are sometimes in Starbucks, how to promote myself. But it’s also very challenging because you have to behave properly at all times. When I’m followed by paparazzi, or when people take my photograph outside a hotel or restaurant, it feels unnatural.” But Lang hopes his youth and style help remove classical music from its perceived ghetto. “I believe great art should be shared with everyone. Maybe Beethoven was paid by the king, but he wanted his pieces to be heard by everyone. ‘Let’s stay in our little club’ is not the right kind of promotion for classical music.”
As for the flamboyance, “I do it when the piece demands it, but it is only one part of my playing. You don’t need to be approved of by people, just play and be sincere.” From the “I must win” of his youth, his attitude now is: “Number one: that’s stupid, just do your art. I am still developing.” He once wrote that depression had stalked him, “looming over me since my professional career took off. I’d felt constantly unmoored, always completely alone in spite of the crowds that clamoured for my attention.” He feels more secure now. “You can be one of the best only when you are doing your best. A big ego will lead you to play wrong notes.” He laughs. “I think the best thing is to play every concert as if it’s your first.”
Has Lang ever been starstruck? Yes, he nods: Lionel Messi, the Argentinian footballer, at Wimbledon one year, “and world leaders. I enjoyed my conversation with Mr George Bush Senior. It was very meaningful: he believed, as I do, music education needs to be improved. I thought that was very sweet.” After the Diamond Jubilee concert, the Queen said, “‘Your fingers are moving so fast.’ I was like, ‘Yes, that’s practice.’ She said, ‘Keep it going.’” At another concert, Sasha and Malia Obama “asked the Jonas Brothers how to sing and me how to prepare a recital. I told them, ‘Take a nap, eat some strawberries and, if you like to eat sweeter stuff, chocolate.’ For me, the most incredible experiences are not state dinner – it was when I was 21, playing for a village in Africa where they got me a keyboard, not a piano, singing local songs with the kids.”
In the testiest moment between us, Lang will not state if he supports Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist who has been detained by the Chinese authorities. “I try to avoid political things,” he says. “I’m not afraid of saying something wrong. I think my goal as a musician is to create art. I don’t know him as a person.” Lang claims, “Artists always have the freedom to express themselves,” which might come as surprising news to Ai Weiwei. “You create art, you can explain this in millions of ways. I don’t think political things can stop artistic creation.”
Lang hopes “the world better understands China” through its art. Is China friendly to artists? “Very. For the people I know. I can’t speak for every artist, of course. I’ve got a good space [for his school].” If the government gives other artists space, “They just create art. It’s not pro-China or anti-China. People are creating amazing things in China, political or not.” Is Lang worried about Ai Weiwei, his treatment, what it means? “Making music is my world. I have no interest in politics.”
Next, Lang will do a recording of Bartók concertos with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. He is inspired by pianists such as Glenn Gould, Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz and contemporary musicians Joshua Bell, Gustavo Dudamel and Valery Gergiev. “I like Adele very much,” he adds. “When she sings she has this real quality. I went to a Lady Gaga concert: it was fun, a lot of revolutionary ideas. From man-world, everything Jay-Z touches is unique.” Sir Paul McCartney, whom Lang has met three times, said to him, “You’re a classical pianist, I’m a classic rocker.” Lang wants to work with McCartney and Adele. Sir Elton John is a friend; the pair are discussing a collaboration, “a totally new song”.
Does Lang want children? “This type of schedule means it’s not possible, I’m focused more on music. I would like children in ten years’ time. That’s the plan, but you never know.” Is he in a relationship? “I’m going on a date tonight. Every time I come home I try to have as much time for myself to have a relationship. I don’t have a steady girlfriend. It would be nice to find someone, but it’s nice to make friends first.” Has he been in love or had his heart broken? “Yes, during school when I was 17. You have more time then, you see that person all the time. But then the touring started. I think love is very important, it’s one of the most important things in life.” Friends try to matchmake him “all the time”.
His mother lives nearby and is his travelling companion, while he and his father video-chat every day. His father is coaching young musicians in Beijing. Lang thinks age has softened him. (He laughs: “I would like him to be more energetic.”) Has his father said sorry for what happened when Lang was a child? “No, it’s very Oriental. You know you’re wrong, but it’s hard to say sorry. He will not say it in front of me. Maybe to the public he will because he feels bad. He feels he loves me so much he doesn’t need to say sorry.” Would Lang like him to? “No. My father showed he cared about me. He was being very protective, though he made mistakes. We are all human beings. It wasn’t as if he was drunk every day and hitting me. He wanted his kid to have a wonderful future. I don’t need him to say he’s sorry for that. We all know he felt bad: that’s good enough.”
Lang retains the “spiritual discipline” of his childhood, “but I’m an adult now”, so on non- concert days he sees friends, shops, eats out and plays football with friends in Central Park with a Manchester United football. “My English team, from when Beckham played. I think Rooney is amazing.” He has become “addicted” to the gym. “I go every day. If you’re a pianist you spend your time sitting down. You need to exercise your legs.” Lang practises for two hours a day on the piano that stands in the windowed apex of his apartment. “I am a pianist and will remain a pianist and to remain as one is a lot of hard work,” he says. Unlike your youth, there’s no neighbour telling you to shut up, I say. Lang shakes his head. “There have been complaints. I am not allowed to play after 11pm.” Global superstar or not, disturb your New York neighbours at your peril.