Fine-tuning a phenomenal talent

At only 18, Lang Lang has already become a pianist of startling depth and maturity.

Classical Music

April 15, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Edvard Grieg's perpetual hit parade-topper, the Piano Concerto in A minor, is hardly child's play. But it's not uncommon for talented young pianists to tackle it successfully, making an impressive splash with the famous opening cascades down the keyboard and the impetuous dance of the finale. What's exceedingly rare is to find a young pianist who can make out of all those familiar notes something fresh and insightful.

Lang Lang is such a rarity.

The 18-year-old, Chinese-born musician will perform the Grieg warhorse with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week, and in Carnegie Hall and several other venues from Pennsylvania to Connecticut the following week. Chances are, he'll create a sensation each time.

That's how it was last fall, when Lang Lang joined the San Francisco Symphony for an electric account of the concerto. And asked to describe the boyish-faced pianist's debut last winter with the St. Petersburg Symphony, playing Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2, conductor Yuri Temirkanov has only four words: "He is a phenomenon."

When Lang Lang first auditioned for Temirkanov, he was one of several students given 15 minutes to make a mark on the conductor.

"After he played 15 minutes, I kept saying 'more, more,' " Temirkanov recalls. "He played for 40. When he came to St. Petersburg to play the Rachmaninoff, the audience was perhaps skeptical. But they loved it. And the next day, his recital sold out in one hour. There was not a wrong note in that recital."

The admiration was mutual.

"I love the way he approaches music," Lang Lang says of Temirkanov. "It is so natural and so beautiful, and he really communicates with an audience. Playing the Rachmaninoff Second with him was quite an amazing experience for me."

This summer, Lang Lang will record the Rachmaninoff Third with Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Symphony, one more credit in an already impressive resume.

Career in the making

Since making his U.S. debut in Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" with the Baltimore Symphony in 1998 (conducted by Alan Gilbert), Lang Lang has appeared with the Chicago Symphony (substituting on short notice for Andre Watts), the Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony, Houston Symphony and several others.

Solo recitals in Chicago and at Tanglewood, the venerable music festival in the Berkshires where his new, live recording was made, have left the clear impression that a major career is being forged. The way things are going, Lang Lang isn't just poised to make waves in the music world, but tsunamis.

"He seems to have everything," says his teacher, Gary Graffman, the great American pianist and director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. "It was apparent that he was an extraordinary, major talent when I first heard him; he was 13 then."

Born in Shen Yang, Lang Lang started piano lessons at 3, won his first competition and gave his first public recital at 5, enrolled in the China Central Music Conservatory at 9. Before he entered his teens, he already had taken first prize at international competitions held in Germany and Japan. It's clear that he's precocious.

"I have no explanation for it at all," Graffman says.

From his home in Philadelphia, Lang Lang suggests one:

"My mother sings," he says. "Not professionally, but she's real good.

"And my father plays the ehru [an ancient bowed instrument] and is concertmaster of a traditional Chinese orchestra. A lot of the musicians lived in the same building where I grew up. The radio station played two hours of classical music every day. I heard the great Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, and also Chopin. I heard recordings by Horowitz, Rubinstein, Serkin and so on."

Although his own initial musical expression came in the form of singing popular Chinese folk songs, Lang Lang really showed promise when his parents bought a piano -- a promise they were determined to nourish.

"Shen Yang was a nice place to begin to study, but not a good place to develop," he says. "My parents decided I should go to a more cultured place: Beijing. I could see a lot of great pianists play there, like Ashkenazy, attend master classes with some of them, and also hear better orchestras and good conductors."

Judges at the competitions where Lang Lang performed so well advised him to study in America. One impressed conductor sent Graffman a videotape of Lang Lang playing the complete Chopin Etudes at a 1996 Beijing recital. That same year, the young pianist traveled to the United States, got his fingers wet playing recitals in New York and Boston, then auditioned for Curtis. He entered the famed school the following year, and treasures the musical guidance he has received there from Graffman.

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