Aptly named, the charismatic pianist Lang Lang—whose first name is derived from the Chinese character meaning ”brightness and sunshine” and surname, “educated gentleman”— joins the Seattle Symphony on November 1 to perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 19. But before his rise to stardom lays a sweeping tale of drama and intense hardship in a country that was until recently closed to the West.
Lang Lang’s autobiography “Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story” (Spiegel & Grau) encompasses the myriad challenges and joys in realizing his consuming passion for music. Born in the army barracks of Shenyang, China, the five-year-old Lang Lang created a world where figures like Mozart, Bach and the mythical Monkey King all co-existed in his vivid imagination: “When I saw Elvis Presley perform on television, I thought of Liszt. Liszt was a rock star—he was wild, and women swooned for him. In my imagination he raced motorcycles and flew jet planes faster than the speed of light. Liszt and Monkey King would have gotten along famously.”
In China, where classical music is more popular and recognizable than The Beatles, Lang Lang is the product of parents whose dreams were plighted by the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and lasted a decade. His father Lang Guoren, an accomplished erhu player who performed with the Shenyang Air Force Band, channeled his own displaced hopes into cultivating his son’s talent. His mother Zhou Xiulan also once dreamed of joining a dance or musical troupe.
In the documentary “From Mao to Mozart,” chronicling his 1979 visit to China, violinist Isaac Stern expressed telling observations on the Revolution’s aftermath. He couldn’t help noticing the deficits in ability of young musicians who were in their mid- to late teens compared with those, say, eight- or nine years old. Indeed, classical music during the Revolution was deemed unsuitable because of its imperialist associations. Music conservatories were closed; even listening to recordings was considered a crime. One of Lang Lang’s teachers told him, “…people threw the great recordings of Horowitz, Rubinstein, and Schnabel out the window and destroyed the scores.” Certainly that would affect the outcrop of musicians who had minimal exposure to the milieu of concerts and the legacy of sharing ideas with other artists.
Being “Number One” became the shared mantra of father and son, who together moved to Beijing in the hopes of having Lang Lang accepted into the conservatory. Lang Guoren went as far as eavesdropping on other students’ lessons and relaying tidbits of information to Lang Lang: “…my father became my secret agent. He’d put on his police coat from Shenyang and con his way inside the conservatory, where parents were not allowed. There, he’d check the schedule to see who was giving a master class so he could sneak into it. If a security guard caught him and escorted him out, he’d linger in the hallway and quietly reenter the room when the guard was gone. If he was ejected a second time, he’d stand outside the classroom, pressing his ear against the doorway to hear what was being played and said. He’d do the same when a well-regarded teacher gave a private lesson…In the evenings, he’d report his findings to me, and they were always helpful.”
Some propitious encounters facilitated Lang Lang’s development, such as meeting Uncle No. 2, a Beijing fruit stand owner, during times of hardship living with his father and separated from his mother. This man became a friend to the father as well, and became a buffer between Lang Lang and his father, who at times proved to be a harsh taskmaster. Other friends served as sources of inspiration for Lang Lang, such as the blind Japanese pianist he meets in Germany or the Chinese restaurateur who hosts Lang Lang and his father during a competition.
Upon his acceptance to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Lang Lang began to more fully explore the spiritual aspects of music making facilitated by his teacher Gary Graffman, something that wasn’t possible when preparing for competitions and entrance exams in China. In “From Mao to Mozart: Twenty Years Later,” Stern emphasizes the “why” rather than the “what” of music during a chamber music masterclass, with the ultimate aim of “building a civilized society” rather than merely cultivating skilled musicians. Initially, the concept seemed unfathomable to Lang Lang and his father, considering the ingrained hierarchical system in China.
Now in his late twenties, Lang Lang has broadened his scope as a concert pianist to include his work with UNICEF as an International Goodwill Ambassador. He visited Zanzibar—part of Tanzania, located off the coast of East Africa—venturing beyond the chic hotels and restaurants in major metropolitan cities where concert halls are located. “During that trip, I often thought of my own difficult childhood, but my days and nights in Africa redefined the meaning of difficulty and put many things in perspective for me. I kept remembering what Kofi Annan, the [former] UN secretary-general, had told me in New York before I’d left for Africa. ‘Lang Lang,…your responsibility as an artist goes beyond music. Your art must serve people and peace’.”
Lang Lang performs with the Seattle Symphony on November 1, 2:00 pm at Benaroya Hall. For tickets or more information, call 206-215-4747 or visit www.seattlesymphony.org.