Chinese pianist Lang Lang has won accolades for his mastery of the classical repertoire, performing with conductors ranging from Daniel Barenboim to Simon Rattle. But his outgoing interpretations of works ranging from Chinese folk songs to Metallica and Herbie Hancock have also inspired millions of children to learn the piano.
On his new album, The Disney Book, Lang Lang features iconic movie melodies, reimagined in new versions written especially for him by some of the world’s greatest arrangers.
Here, Lang Lang reveals the music that shaped him as a performer.
‘Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky is my all-time favourite, as well as the piece that launched my career. I listened to it in my small dorm at Shengyang Conservatory and was amazed at how powerful classical music could be. Before that, I had listened to beautiful Mozart, but one day I heard these huge chords at the opening of the concerto, and I thought, ‘Wow!! It’s something.’ Later this concerto launched my career when I performed it with the Chicago Symphony [standing in for André Watts]and I’ve played it several times since.
“In 1992, when I was ten years old, I watched a videotape of Glenn Gould playing Bach Goldberg Variations on my small television. I had never heard Bach played this way. Such a strong personality! You think Bach is economical, but the way Gould played him was like a Picasso – he totally changed the form, the melody, the voice, the articulation. It was the same material, but he turned it into another amazing creature.
More recently, I played Goldberg Variations in concert and I recorded two versions, one a live recording at Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig and another in the studio. Glenn Gould said it was much better to record in the studio, and I also agree, but there’s something about the spontaneity of a live gig – those special moments, that you don’t get in studio.
“As students, we always practice exercises by composers like Czerny and Moszkowski, but The 24 Studies of Chopin are on another level. It’s not just about pure technique; they are at the service of music. This is why it is necessary to practice, to make the bridge between mechanics and real music, and this is what Chopin delivers in his Etudes. The first one I played was the Etude ‘Black Key’, Op. 10 No. 5, and it was a very difficult piece for me at eight years old. Each year, I learned five or six more until, at 13, I played the complete Chopin Etudes in concert.
‘Nessun Sleep’interpreted by Luciano Pavarotti, has to be one of my five choices. He has this particular gift of making music shine. There are other great artists like Placido Domingo or Jonas Kaufmann, but Pavarotti is The One. In a way, when he sings, it’s like that – music is supposed to be like that. He’s got the talent, he’s got the high notes and he’s got that sound. It’s something you can’t practice, you have to be born with it, and what’s more, he brings this music to everyone, even people who don’t understand classical music.
“I met Pavarotti in my late teens in Philadelphia, during one of his last tours, and played him a recording of my Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. He wrote me an e-mail that I still have, saying he could see sunshine in my performance of the concerto. It was truly inspiring for an 18 year old!
‘We are the world’ by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie is the song that breaks all the barriers of this world. If we had more songs like that, there would be no wars. I often play it at charity concerts – especially last year in Central Park during a charity concert for children.
“I have a Children’s Foundation and I think you have to be very creative in your approach to music education. There is no one way to teach; don’t stick to the rules rigidly, but let children find their own voice. My wife [pianist Gina Alice Redlinger] introduced our young son to music through some of the beautiful classical and crossover pieces on his album, amazing world. I think the tracks from my latest Disney album will be perfect for early learning to listen. After all, my first experience of classical music came from an episode of the cartoon Tom and Jerry“The Cat Concerto”!
Lang Lang’s new album The Disney book is out now.
Lang Lang’s choices
Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky
Lang Lang (piano), Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon DG 4742912
Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Glenn Gould (piano)
Chopin: 24 Studies
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Puccini: ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Turandot