Being Lang Lang must require a lot of patience. The high-profile Chinese pianist makes himself very accessible on social media and the questions that come in range far and wide. “What was the first scary movie you remember watching?” “What is Lang Lang’s hand size?” “What’s the last wedding that wowed you?”
It is hard to imagine many pianists having to field questions like these, but Lang Lang answers them in good humour and with apparent enthusiasm. He is tirelessly bright-eyed as a communicator, which is fortunate given the media spotlight that shines on everything he does.
The days when Lang Lang, still only 38, was simply a young Chinese pianist with a hotline to virtuosity feel long gone. Riding the wave as the first Chinese musician to win widespread fame in the west has taken him far beyond the boundaries that limit most classical musicians. He played at the opening concert of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He is a Unicef Ambassador and a UN Messenger of Peace. He was presented with the Crystal Award at Davos in 2010 and chosen as one of 250 Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum.
Even the luxury goods sector is peppered with his name. There is a Lang Lang perfume, a watch, headphones, trainers (eye-catching in striking black and gold) and the Black Diamond Steinway grand piano. On closer inspection a Lang Lang golf club in Australia turns out not be connected with him, though it would not have been a surprise.
For the time being, Lang Lang is holed up in Guangzhou, fielding interviews about his forthcoming recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He says he saw the potential for philanthropy early. “I realised as a teenager that there were a few classical musicians, like Daniel Barenboim, who were working as Unicef ambassadors,” he says. “Also, [the series of concerts] Pavarotti and Friends were helping to raise funds for children in Bosnia. I saw for the first time that music could be powerful outside its usual reach, connecting people and uniting them with a good cause. I had a dream to follow in their footsteps.”
Lang Lang was appointed a UN Ambassador for Peace in 2013. Among his early commitments was a visit to Tanzania, where he played at a school in Zanzibar and then with local musicians in a small village outside Dar es Salaam.
“I realised that, although we didn’t know each other and didn’t speak each other’s languages, we became friends through music. I felt the power of music much more strongly there than in the concert hall. So many kids are talented, but do not have a musical education. Compared to them, I knew I was a lucky person and wanted to do something for them.
“Even in the west there are many schools where the kids cannot learn musical instruments, or cannot afford to buy the instruments. We need to figure out how to communicate to people who are not in classical music how passionate the classical world is, and how important it is in education.”
One of the outcomes has been the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. Among other activities, it provides instruments to deserving schools, though this work has been restricted during the coronavirus pandemic. Lang Lang says the organisation is looking to keep going by taking instruments into people’s homes, though he concedes this could not be done in large numbers.
As with every performing musician, he has found this a barren time. There has only been “one highlight of this strange year”, he says ruefully. That is his upcoming recording of the Goldberg Variations. For a pianist who has made his name thundering up and down the keyboard in the most virtuoso piano works, this would seem to be a dramatic change of direction, to say the least.
In fact, Lang Lang says not. He first started playing the Goldberg Variations when he was 10 years old after watching the inimitable Glenn Gould play them on film, so this is music he has lived with for a long time. He had wanted to record them in 2012, but an encounter with conductor and Baroque specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt convinced him he was not ready.
When he posted a clip of the aria from the Goldberg Variations on social media, a question came back asking what image he had in his mind as he was playing it. “A very lonely planet” was his answer, though he emphasises that Bach is less about pictures than Romantic composers.
“You might describe Chopin as being like reading a poem, Liszt like a German film, Mozart filling the screen with birds and animals. But Bach is more abstract. You think, how much pedal can I use, how many colours can I create, how far can I go? This has been my ongoing study over the past 10 years. Bach’s music is a bit like jazz, where you are given the roots of the music, but you build up each time differently. It is possible to do a lot of improvisation and whenever there is a repeat I try to play different trills.”
Unusually, his CD set of the Goldberg Variations will feature two performances — one recorded in the studio, one live — and he says they are quite different. For the live recording, he went to the historic St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, where Bach lived and worked for a quarter of a century.
“When I played next to his grave at Thomaskirche, the inspiration felt so close,” he says. “That colour, that mood, that soul, the music feels part of the spiritual world rather than the world of reality. Bach is close to heaven.”
Sensing the history of the place may hold extra resonance if one is a musician from as far afield as China. After western music was banned for so long through the years of the Cultural Revolution, it is hard to grasp the tidal wave in interest that has since swept China, lifting pianists such as Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Yundi Li to worldwide fame in the process.
“Classical music is not for everybody in China,” he says, “but the percentage, particularly learning piano, violin and cello, is high. Although not every school offers a good music education, they all have classes, teaching Beethoven alongside Chinese folk instruments. If your kid doesn’t learn an instrument, it feels like he or she is a bit awkward in social life. A classical pianist is greeted as somebody cool in China, whereas in some countries in the west it is the reverse. People will say, ‘Are you serious? You don’t play the music of today? You like your grandparents’ music?’”
Could the Chinese government clamp down again on western culture, if political tensions increase? Some people in China have their fears. Ever upbeat, though, Lang Lang only sees the positive. “No — I don’t see political stress ending the popularity of western music in China. Whether it comes from Europe, or South America, or wherever, people just like good music.”
Lang Lang’s recording of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ will be released by Deutsche Grammophon on September 4
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