Lang Lang visits store

January 27, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There's been a Lang Lang sighting."

That news reassured the 90 students, parents and teachers waiting patiently at Jordan Kitt's Music in Lutherville Saturday afternoon for a question-and-answer session with the personable pianistic phenomenon. Seems the pianist's driver got lost on the way to the store for the event, held on Lang Lang's day off between performances of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra over the weekend.

"First of all," said a broadly smiling Lang Lang when he finally arrived, "Happy Chinese New Year! I hope we can all be very relaxed now." Everybody was. Sporting a black corduroy suit and white, open-collar shirt, the Chinese-born pianist, 21, easily interacted with the crowd.

How do you practice, a student asked. "I play scales every day, very slowly," Lang Lang said. "Then octaves. After this, the hands are warmed up and you're ready to work on the music. But don't pay too much attention to technique so that it becomes hard work. Yes, you need hard work - but not too hard."

Another question elicited a list of Lang Lang's teachers. "My first teacher was my father. He is a great player of the erhu, a Chinese folk instrument. But as a pianist - terrible!" (Lang Lang's father, who was out in the lobby during his son's talk, may not have heard that description.) One of his subsequent teachers in China wasn't impressed with the budding talent. "I got fired," Lang Lang said with a laugh.

Eventually, after moving to the United States, he studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia with eminent American pianist Gary Graffman. Although he graduated from Curtis in 2002, Lang Lang still studies with Graffman. Asked what he could possibly learn from a teacher at this stage in his high-profile, international career, Lang Lang had a quick reply: "Oh, come on! You always need a teacher."

Asked how he had overcome stage fright, a common problem for young musicians, Lang Lang shot back, "How can you tell I don't have it now?" The pianist reminded the students in the room that "the reason to play the piano is to have fun. Don't think too much about missing notes. If you miss a note, who cares? Lots of big pianists mess up on stage. What I care about is what the pianist does to my heart. Just follow the music and be yourself."

Two youngsters in the early stages of piano lessons volunteered to play for Lang Lang - no stage fright there - and took his suggestions in good stride after they each experienced a meltdown at the keyboard. "The left hand can be a little softer and the speed faster," he said to one student, then brilliantly demonstrated what he meant.

Lang Lang gave particular attention to Minju Song, a 19-year-old who recently resumed piano lessons after a break of several years. As she played through part of a Prokofiev piece, he stood close by, using his hands like a conductor to coax more expressive phrasing. "Several things he pointed out were really helpful," she said later. "He gave me a picture of what the music is about."

The crowd wanted to hear Lang Lang play, of course. He obliged with snippets of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, some exquisite Bach and, to celebrate the Chinese New Year, a propulsive work by Tan Dun. Those short performances reiterated his basic philosophy: "Everybody should try to find a sound that really belongs to you. In the end, I think everyone should be different. Good teachers should help a student evolve in a natural way, not be a copy machine."

During a cookies-and-punch reception, while Lang Lang signed autographs, a 10-year-old started playing Chopin on an upright piano in a corner of the room. Lang Lang gravitated toward the sound, clearly impressed by Vincent Henningfield's poised, far from mechanical playing. As Lang Lang offered ideas, Henningfield quickly adjusted his touch and tempo to try them out.

"He's a great role model for Vincent," said the boy's mother, Lucy Henningfield.

"He focused a lot on expression and encouraged people to really feel the music," said Vincent, who was still working on his Chopin as Lang Lang headed off to lunch.

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