Pianist  Lang  Lang

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

lang lang

Lang Lang (Chinese: 郎朗; pinyin: Láng Lǎng; born 14 June 1982) is a Chinese concert pianist who has performed with leading orchestras in China, the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Active since the 1990s, he was the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and some top American orchestras. A Chicago Tribune music critic called him "the biggest, most exciting young keyboard talent I have encountered in many a year of attending piano recitals"

lang lang Lang Lang was born in Shenyang, Liaoning, on 14 June 1982. His father Lang Guoren is a member of the Manchu Niohuru clan, which brought forth a long line of Qing Empresses. The elder Lang is also a musician; he plays the traditional Chinese erhu, a stringed instrument. At the age of two, Lang watched the Tom and Jerry episode The Cat Concerto, which features Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Lang has said it was this—his first contact with Western classical music—that motivated him to learn the piano. He began piano lessons with Professor Zhu Ya-Fen at age three. At the age of five, he won first place at the Shenyang Piano Competition and performed his first public recital.

When Lang was nine years old, he intended to audition for Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music, but, having difficulties with his lessons, was expelled from his piano tutor's studio for "lack of talent". Another music teacher at his state school noticed Lang's sadness, and put the score of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 10 in C major, K. 330 on the piano; she asked him to play the second movement, which reminded Lang of his love for the instrument. "Playing the K. 330 brought me hope again," he recalled.

Lang was later admitted into the conservatory, where he studied under Professor Zhao Ping-Guo. In 1993, Lang won the Xinghai National Piano Competition in Beijing and in 1994 was awarded first prize for outstanding artistic performance at the Fourth International Competition for Young Pianists in Ettlingen, Germany. In 1995, at 13 years of age, he played the Op. 10 and Op. 25 études by Chopin at the Beijing Concert Hall; in the same year, Lang also won first place at the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Japan, playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert broadcast by NHK Television. When he was 14, Lang was a featured soloist at the China National Symphony's inaugural concert, which was broadcast by China Central Television and attended by President Jiang Zemin.

In 1997, at 15 years of age, Lang and his father left for the United States, where Lang began studies with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[Since the interview below was done so near the beginning of his career, the biography will stop at this point. Needless to say, since that time, the pianist has become a world-wide sensation, with numerous notable performances and recordings, both audio and video. Most biographical articles will list many of them, and can be found easily via internet searches.]

This conversation was held in Chicago when Lang Lang was just twenty years old!  Since that time, he has made great strides in both artistry and interpretation, yet even back then he was confident and showed youthful wisdom.  

Here is what was said in the fall of 2002 . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You go from city to city, and you meet piano after piano.  After you first sit down, how long is it before the piano is your piano?

Lang Lang:   That’s a good question.  I try to have a condition in which I set up immediately, and have concentration and inspiration with the piano.  That’s the thing I try every time.  Sometimes it takes a little bit longer to warm up in the first place.  Then, after I warm up, I normally play some music, and check my technique.  It opens your mind.  In other words, you just flow with the music and get in the mood.

lang lang BD:   Are some pianos more friendly?

Lang Lang:   Yes, some pianos are more aligned with your inner body, and sometimes you can feel closer than with some other pianos.

BD:   What can you do if the piano is not really responding to you, in order to get as much of you through that piano as possible?

Lang Lang:   That is a little bit more work, but I try to manage it.

BD:   Are there some pianos that are just right for you immediately?

Lang Lang:   Yes.  For me, it’s a situation which is a little bit different because I’m from China.  When I was a little child, I would play a really, really bad piano, but I would think it was a good piano because I didn’t know a good piano.  I had ten years training on that kind of piano, so basically I can play every piano.  I had a very good education.

BD:   Do you think that all young pianists coming along should play on bad pianos so that they can overcome any problems?

Lang Lang:   In Europe or in America, it’s really rich countries, so it’s hard to do that.  But still, I think sometimes it’s nice to play some bad piano to see what it sounds like and what it feels like.  You’re still making music, but with a kind of condition on that kind of instrument.

BD:   Can you really make music with that instrument???

Lang Lang:   [With a big smile]  Yes.

BD:   So the music is in you, not the piano?

Lang Lang:   Yes.  It’s more personal, like a duet.  You need to know what you do first, and then you tell your best friend the piano.  [Laughs]

BD:   Is it you and the piano and the composer?

Lang Lang:   Absolutely!  The most important thing for me is respect the composer first, and then to do as much research as possible to bring the inner life and the meaning of the piece, and the meaning of the entire community of that time.  It is important to do some historical research.  I like to go to some of the countries in which they lived, and just walk through the streets, and see what the buildings look like, because music is also with lots of structure.  I’m sure when one is walking in Bonn, or in Vienna, others feel what the composer got from the beauty, as I do.  Now, of course, you’ll see the big structure, and it’s very important to know those kinds of things.  That starts me thinking how to create some new way in which nobody really felt before.  I’m sure it’s hard to find some way nobody discovered before, because there’s always people who are so intelligent that they always discover things every day.  But still, I try to get something special which people can hear this piece.  They know the melody very well, but they probably will think they never heard this kind of playing before.

BD:   Is it up to you to always find something new?

Lang Lang:   I would love to find something new every day, but I am sure there are lots of people who really find things in these pieces.  Maybe I didn’t find anything yesterday, but today I might find something really new.  Then I feel pretty happy because I think if every day I can make something fresh, and something new in the right moment, in the right structure, and in the right mood, that will be a really lovely thing.

BD:   Now you’re finding something new that each composer has put in.  Are you putting something of yourself into it also?

Lang Lang:   The composer inspires you, and then you transform it in your body.  You need to bring his soul first, and then, in the same time, because they are your hands and your heart, there’s some energy.  But, of course, you have his ideas in your mind, so that’s the thing to put it all together.

BD:   Each time you play the piece you discover something new.  Is there ever going to be a time when you’ve gotten everything out of the piece?

Lang Lang:   That’s something which needs a lot of time to discover.  Some pieces I found I can see that a lot, but you can never get everything out.  Those composers are not living today.  You can see the books about them, and about their analysis of the pieces, but still it needs some time.  Probably I’ll figure it all out one day, but I’m keep going for it.  The great thing is that I have a lot of great mentors who are great pianists to help me, and lots of great conductors, such as Maestro Barenboim
[shown farther below on this webpage playing piano four-hands] and Mr. Eschenbach [shown immediately below in concerto performance].  I’m really, really lucky to have them!  [Links go to my interviews with the musicians.]

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BD:   So you’re learning whatever you can, wherever you can?

Lang Lang:   Yes, it’s really anytime, anywhere!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Even at this young age, how do you divide your career between solo recitals and concerto performances?

Lang Lang:   It’s not a big difference because concerto performances you play shorter.  It’s only half a concert, but there are lots of things in there because it’s more like chamber music, and you need to work with the conductors.  At the same time, you need to listen carefully to the other instruments, and other phrasing in the music.  You need to put it all together with the piano, and so that needs more work.  But even at the same time, when I play a recital, I always carry a spark from the symphonic world, and also the opera.  When you play solo piano, it’s not only a symphonic work, it’s an entire opera, because everything is singing.  The thing about the piano is that it’s got a lot of strings.  It’s not singing like vocalists, but it needs always to be thought of as singing.  But even if you always think it’s singing, sometimes it doesn’t show up that way because it’s not a singing instrument.  But by using your imagination, you know how to deal with the harmony changes, and doing the right pedaling.  So, sometimes it really comes through, but you need some time to find it.  This means the really quiet times, or the really passionate times, like in the bedroom.  To me, it’s like a big air going around.

lang lang BD:   Is this partly because you can’t draw a bow across the strings?

Lang Lang:   Yes, and you cannot do vibrato.

BD:   You have a hammer hitting the strings.  So is your passion in the finger technique to make it sing?

Lang Lang:   Yes.  If your finger is sensitive enough, you eventually will get it.  I’m working on that pretty hard because when the piano has a singing voice, that’s going to be the warmth of the sound.  Then the piano will be like other singing instruments.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You’ll have to work on your breath control!  [Much laughter]

Lang Lang:   Sometimes it works.  You breathe with your phrase, so it’s like singing.  It’s like that.

BD:   You have an enormous repertoire to choose from.  How do you decide which pieces you will play, and which you will not play?

Lang Lang:   For the concertos, sometimes I decide, but sometimes others will decide what they want.  Now I’m getting so that I can choose some of the repertoire.  For the solo recitals I choose, because those are the pieces I need to play.

BD:   What makes you decide that you want to learn a piece?

Lang Lang:   When I listen to some music, for me the things that I love are the great composers’ works.  I love pieces from Bach to Bartók, to today’s living composers.  I just listen to some music which really inspires me, and right away I get the music and I play it.  It’s always like that.  If I’m working on the old repertoire, or the repertoire I need to perform, when I hear something new I try to get it right away.  I can get some new pieces every day, and to have a new blast!

BD:   You don’t need to say which ones, but have there been pieces that you have explored and decided no, you’re not going to play them, at least not now?

Lang Lang:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s hard to say.  I always challenge myself.  I started a Tchaikovsky concerto when I was nine years old, and the Rachmaninov Third when I was ten.  So, it’s crazy.

BD:   Your hands were big enough for those???

Lang Lang:   My hands were big enough to play those things, that’s for sure, but I also played the Chopin études in that same year.  So, it’s kind of crazy.  Now, there are several pieces
like some of the Beethoven sonataswhich I’ve already practiced, but I will bring them to the stage later.  It’s not because I cannot play them, but it’s because I want to get them in the best shape, in the best condition.  This is also the same with the Brahms concertos.

BD:   How do you decide when they’re ready to perform?

Lang Lang:   Each year, when you learn some other repertoire, you know what you’re doing in the future.  At that same time, when you work on some of the difficult repertoire
like the sonatas of Beethoven, or the Bach Goldberg Variationsyou already have learned things from other pieces.  For example, I’m playing the Beethoven Emperor Concerto next month, and I’m starting now so I’m prepared.  Then, if I play a Beethoven sonata, there are a lot of places where I’ve gotten similar feelings.  Even if it’s a different key, it’s Beethoven’s personality there.  When I look at the Waldstein and the Moonlight sonatas, and the big Opus 106 [Hammerklavier], it’s all very similar.  Of course, you need to work each one individually, but still it’s all connected.  You can know the structure and the key changes, but somehow it’s quite similar in personality.  Each piece has a different story, but it’s a lot of the same words in those different stories.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now, you’re working on a new piece by Tan Dun?

Lang Lang:   [Enthusiastically]  Yes.  I like to do modern music, but I need to look at each piece first.  I also like to talk to the composer directly, because in the contemporary music world, sometimes it’s hard to understand because it’s so modern, and it’s so much a part of each composer
s imagination.  There are lots of crazy things in there, and lots of great creation, and you need to know what’s it’s all about.  You really need to know what’s going on, otherwise you’re going to be lost.

BD:   Is there a special bond between you and Tan Dun being from China?

Lang Lang:   Of course.  We’re close, like brothers.  He’s older than me, but he also graduated from the Central Conservatory in Beijing and that’s was also my school.  He’s from South China and I’m from North China, but I always think his temperament and personality is more like a Northern Chinese!  This is nothing against the South, as I like the North equally.  There are a lot of things whereby we think very similar, and we very much want to bring Chinese music to the world stage, so people everywhere can really appreciate Chinese music and really enjoy it, and let it be a part of their cultural life, like when they listen to Mozart.

BD:   When you play a solo recital, are you sure to include some Chinese pieces?

Lang Lang:   Yes.  Next year I’m doing the premiere of Tan Dun’s Eight Sketches of Hunan, (later called Eight Memories in Watercolor).  They’re like watercolor paintings from his home town in Hunan.  That’s his first work, composed in 1978, but no one really performed the entire piece, so next year I’m going to do the world premiere.  He wrote it while he was a student and the Central Conservatory in Beijing.  It’s a really beautiful work... a little like the French style, but of course Chinese in tone, with some Chinese folk music, plus the French taste of color, and contemporary a little bit like Scriabin, with that kind of modern craziness.

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BD:   Are you looking forward to also playing some of his new pieces?

Lang Lang:   Yes.  We’re also doing some of his more contemporary works, and he is also working on his piano concerto.

lang lang

BD:   Is the music that you playconcert musicfor everyone?

Lang Lang:   Yes!

BD:   Six billion???

Lang Lang:   You mean everyone in the world?   The music which I perform, classical music, is easier to understand than English, I’m sure, because when you go to China you speak much better with the piano rather than speaking words.  It’s absolutely a world language, and it’s a nice language.  They have always heard it, but sometimes they don’t understand what we say.  If you love music, and if you always want to learn and always want to like music, if you use your mind just a little bit you will understand what the music’s meaning is, because that’s life.  That’s humanity.  Even with your different reasons, and different languages in different countries, we’re all human, and we all have the kind of similar soul.  I’m sure that’s human.

BD:   So music can unite us?

Lang Lang:   Absolutely so.  I’m sure of that.  We need older music, Indian music, Chinese music, Japanese music, everything.  You can understand especially classical music because it’s very high and very delicate, and very knowledgeable music.  I’m also doing a project with young people to inspire them to understand the classical music world.  It’s been very successful to have a lecture, and then to play for them.  I ask what they want, which kind of music they want.  Do they want happiness?  What kind of movie do they want?  Piano music is like a movie.  When you play a work, you always think of some pictures and some story themes.  But, of course, it depends on the composers first.  So, you make stories, and I will speak my stories.  First I play, then I speak, and then I play again, and speak again about another piece.  The little kids really loved it, and then they want to be pianists!

BD:   So we’re getting more pianists.  Are we also getting more audience?

Lang Lang:   We are getting more audience, yes, and some more pianists.  The piano is a very popular instrument.

BD:   When you’re sitting there playing, are you conscious of the audience that is to your right?

Lang Lang:   I’m not.  I don’t want to look at them, to be saying,
“Look, can you hear this?  No, not that, but if the music needs it, you need some direction because the music sometimes flies.  It’s not like I want to make a direction, or that I am showing off.  It’s not like that because music is horizontal and vertical, and you need to make those shapes enough to give direction.  Then they will get it.  Otherwise, you just stay there, and sometimes it’s hard to do and hard to understand.

BD:   Do you play differently for different kinds of audiences
if it’s a young audience, or an experienced audience?

lang lang Lang Lang:   It is always just for me, for each night.  I always use a varied repertoire for a recital.  I select from real classical, to a big romantic, and back to a small lovely romantic, to an impressionist, and then give them some contemporary stuff.  I always want it mixed, so it’s for all audiences and all ages.  I probably play for friends and young people, but I do like to play more classical pieces because that’s the soul.  Then I will tell them they can see how music developed through another door, to another style, and to another time, another century.  It’s like when you see a movie from the old time to the modern times.  It should be exciting.

BD:   You’ve made a couple of recordings.  One is from a concert.  Was the other recording done in a concert, or in the studio?  [Remember, this interview was done in 2002, when Lang Lang was just twenty years old!]

Lang Lang:   Everything is in concert.

BD:   Do you play differently when a concert is being recorded?

Lang Lang:   I don’t care if the microphone is there or not, but I really love to play without it.  That’s why I make live recordings, because I think I am playing without it, and I share more.  I get a special atmosphere when I play to an audience
I don’t know whyespecially in the second recording, the Rachmaninov Third [shown at right].  I was playing in front of 6,000 people in the Royal Albert Hall, and they all stood up when they listened to the concert.  So, that was another feeling.  It’s like looking at the crazy English soccer players in the stadiums.  People are standing there, so that kind of thing is even better.  They really love music, and they love classical music, and it’s just their soul, their heart.  They just support me there.  They’re crazy, and it’s really great to feel that.

BD:   Will you try to make all of your future recordings from concerts?

Lang Lang:   I don’t know.  It depends on the facilities.  I like to do the live recordings, but sometimes you cannot do it.  I also need to use the studio because you need to be a complete artist.  Live recordings are more difficult for me.  The challenge, for example, is that there is only once chance.  There are no changes because the sound would not match when the 6,000 people go.

BD:   What about cutting from different performances?

Lang Lang:   In this case, there’s only once performance.  So that was it!  You play well, or you play badly and it’s rubbish.

BD:   Are you pleased with the recordings?

Lang Lang:   Since this is a one-time recording, I’m pleased, but in the future I will make better ones.  But so far, I think it’s good.  I like it.

BD:   Do you leave enough time for personal life?

Lang Lang:   Yes, of course.  I love to have a normal life as other young people, and to have fun, to go to the bar.  I’m not twenty-one yet, so I go to the bar to drink sparkling water!  [Both laugh]  I like to hang out with my friends, and to chat, to be crazy and watch movies because you need it.  Why live in the world if you don’t have that.  You’re so far from being human when you’re so far from people.  If nobody likes you and nobody wants to make friends with you, then your music making so lonely.

BD:   I assume that you have to practice at least some every day?

Lang Lang:   I must practice, but the heavy concert schedule
playing a hundred and forty concerts this yearis totally crazy.

BD:   Are you going to cut back?

Lang Lang:   I’ve already signed the contracts, and also at some time I’m playing with my father, who plays a Chinese instrument, the Erhu [shown below].  He’s a very good professional player.  We performed at Ravinia [the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in Highland Park, Illinois] this summer, and the people loved it.  It was really nice, and it’s a little bit much, but sometimes, when you have a really important concert like this sort of thing, you cannot really say no.  But of course, in the future, it’s a good thing, but I still I need to pay more attention.

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BD:   Do you like traveling the world?

Lang Lang:   Yes, I love it.  It makes people happy, and makes people feel comfortable.  It’s the best thing you can do in the world.

BD:   It makes other people happy, but does it make you happy?

Lang Lang:   [Laughing]  Yes!  I must be the first one to be happy, otherwise nobody will be happy.  [Both laugh]  But, of course, music is not only happy.  That’s the great thing about this kind of music.  It has all of the emotions.  The great thing is when it’s a live experience.

BD:   You’ve signed all these contracts.  Do you like knowing that on a certain Thursday a couple of years from now, you’re going to be playing a certain piece in a certain hall?

Lang Lang:   Yes.  Now I actually know that in 2006 in some month that I’m playing somewhere.

lang lang BD:   Is that a good feeling, or is it scary?

Lang Lang:   It’s quite exciting.

BD:   But then, of course, the responsibility is yours to continue to play well.

Lang Lang:   Yes, and that’s good.  I need to think ahead to prepare.  Recently, the thing which I really appreciate was that I won the first Leonard Bernstein Award in Schleswig-Holstein in Germany.  Bernstein has always been my favorite conductor in the past because of all the great things about him.  He was not only a great musician, conductor, pianist, and composer, but he was also a great educationalist.  He did the best communication in the world.  He could communicate with everybody, and the people love to listen to his music.  It’s very important for the world to know his work in classical music, to devolve the classical music future.  It’s a big honor for me to keep on this road, and to work at something which he didn’t.  He’s of the past, and maybe to new generation I should keep going what he did for the young generation.

BD:   You will continue his work?

Lang Lang:   Continue his work, yes.

BD:   Let me say your name.

Lang Lang:   In Chinese?

BD:   In Chinese and in English.

Lang Lang:   In Chinese it’s like Lawng-Lawng [the first is said almost as two syllables with a rising pitch under a musical slur].  In English it’s Lang-Lang [A as in apple, both simply said quickly on a single tone].  So the choice is between AWNG and ANG.  It’s very funny.  Different parts of the world have a different version of my name.  In Germany Long-Long, and in America it
s Lang-Lang, and in Japan its Lah-Lah.  [Laughs]

BD:   What do you prefer?

Lang Lang:   I prefer Luhng-Luhng [two quick equal syllables].

BD:   Okay.  What is your birth date?

Lang Lang:   June 14th, 1982.

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Lang Lang:   I’m very pleased, and I feel very lucky to be here, and to see so many people behind me
my family, my teachers, my managers, the record company, and the great maestros, and great musicians who are always behind me.  I just feel the need to really appreciate living in this world, because it’s for me it’s special.  I love to live in America because I think it’s really a great country for my musical life, and for my career.  It’s always special to think of this.

BD:   Where is home for you now?

Lang Lang:   Philadelphia.

BD:   Will you be coming back to Chicago?

Lang Lang:   Yes, next summer, and next season, 2003/2004, and then the season after.  It will be interesting.

BD:   Good.  Thank you so much for coming today, and for this conversation.  All the best, and continued good luck.

Lang Lang:   This was a pleasure.  Thank you.

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© 2002 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 11, 2002.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR in 2005 and 2008.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.