Taking notes

Students at the School for the Arts listen and learn from virtuoso pianist Lang Lang


Lang Lang, the Chinese piano star, sat on the edge of an intimate stage at the Baltimore School for the Arts, dispensing musical, nutritional and even a little psychological advice with the wit and wisdom of a graying veteran.

But he's only slightly older than his audience - about 100 music and dance high school students who stayed to see Lang Lang Friday afternoon, even though school had let out for the day an hour earlier.

They seemed equally awed and charmed by the easygoing keyboard artist, dressed in chic black, his shoulder-length hair and long sideburns giving him something of a vintage rocker look.

At the ripe age of 23, Lang Lang has already experienced a rich life in the big time - recitals in the best places; gigs with the best orchestras, including the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics (the first Chinese pianist engaged by those august ensembles); acclaimed recordings for the best labels; TV appearances on every continent.

Asked by a student when he had realized that he was "the best of the best," Lang Lang momentarily looked taken aback .

"When you think you are the best of the best," he said, "at that moment, you are not. Don't worry about being the best, but just bring the best from your heart. Be sincere."

Playing from the heart is a characteristic that has distinguished Lang Lang from his earliest days. His ability to generate sensational pyrotechnics at the keyboard certainly turns heads, but his prowess for producing an unusual depth of lyricism accounts for much of his appeal.

The label "phenomenal" has been attached to him for a long time now. He was winning competitions before his age reached double digits. He made his U.S. debut with the Baltimore Symphony at 16, his Carnegie Hall debut with that orchestra at 19.

Thanks to those early career-boosting connections, Lang Lang continues to have a soft spot for Baltimore, which is one reason he readily agreed to an informal session with students at the School for the Arts, in between concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington last week. (Secretary of State and pianist Condoleezza Rice, a confirmed Lang Lang fan, was expected to attend one of his NSO performances.)

A suggestion by Greg Tucker, former BSO vice president of public relations, led to Lang Lang's appearance for the sixth annual Colgate Salsbury Visiting Artist Series, established by a board member of the school, Maryland Public Television's Rhea Feikin, in memory of her husband.

In previous years, the series has offered students up-close, informal sessions with John Waters, Kathleen Turner, Hal Holbrook, Martin Short and Lynn Redgrave.

"Lang Lang [is] the first musician to visit for the series," said Leslie Shepard, director of the School for the Arts, "and we're absolutely honored to host such a brilliant pianist."

Tucker, who now works for insurance group Aegon N.V., moderated the Q&A portion of the session and soon had Lang Lang reminiscing about his early attraction to classical music.

He told the students one of his favorite stories, about how he was drawn to the piano when he was 2, thanks to a Tom and Jerry cartoon that made comic use of a Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt.

And he talked about the pressures of performing in public at a tender age.

"I never could sleep before a concert," Lang Lang said. "I needed to go to the toilet 10 times."

"Too much information," Tucker said, to laughter from the kids.

The pianist revealed his secret for getting a good night's rest. "The best thing is to have red wine," he said. More laughter. "China doesn't have an age limit," he added quickly.

Lang Lang also suggested eating lots of fruit just before performing. "It relaxes you," he said. "And chocolate - that makes you feel happy."

Colin Stokes, an 18-year-old cello student, elicited advice on rehearsing a full recital program: Practice the music for a year, put it away to work on other things for two months, then come back to it.

"You must be comfortable with the music before you play the recital," he said. "Have a party and play the program for friends. And not always good friends; the others are more critical."

Lang Lang is not a practice-all-day sort of musician. Interviewed during a car ride from Washington to the school, he described a valuable quality shared by his home in Philadelphia, where he has lived since his Curtis Institute days, and a second one recently acquired in Beijing.

Both have "lots of rooms to think in," but also provide "a very good place to party with friends."

Not that Lang Lang doesn't take his art seriously.

"Unfortunately, you have to work hard," he said to the School for the Arts students. "You cannot escape that. And you must love the feeling that music brings to you."

The pianist then demonstrated what he meant by playing two popular pieces by Liszt, including the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 that he had once heard a cartoon cat tackle. He didn't use Liszt's original score - too easy - but a finger-busting transcription by legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz.

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