Certain artists, like certain politicians, generate such intense for-them or against-them camps that there's little room for any reaction in between. Lang Lang is such an artist.
The Chinese-born piano virtuoso, who will be the featured soloist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 2009-2010 season-launching gala concert on Saturday, has a decidedly personal approach to music-making. With Lang Lang, you get an experience, not a mere performance. He doesn't sit still or maintain a poker face when he plays, and he doesn't hesitate to push or pull a phrase, to rush or slow a tempo in an unusual manner.
These distinctive traits were already in evidence in 1998, when, at the age of 16, Lang Lang made his BSO debut.
"This is the first orchestra I played with in America," he says by phone from California, where he made time for a brief vacation. "I haven't been back to Baltimore in ages, so I'm really looking forward to this concert."
In addition to making his American orchestral debut with the BSO, Lang Lang also made his Carnegie Hall debut with the orchestra and then-BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov in 2001. Since that career-boosting event, the pianist has enjoyed a rapid rise to international stardom.
Today, Lang Lang is one of the best-known classical musicians on the planet.
His playing at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing was viewed on TV by an estimated 5 billion people worldwide. His 2008 autobiography, "Journey of a Thousand Miles," which candidly addresses a difficult relationship between Lang Lang and his determined father, has been translated into eight languages. And his commercial ties to the likes of Adidas, Audi and Rolex have helped give him extra cachet.
For his return to Baltimore, Lang Lang will perform Tchaikovsky's evergreen Piano Concerto No. 1 - "one of my favorites," he says. The piece is quite the finger-buster.
"I'm not so worried about that," the pianist says. "Technically, I think I'm not that bad. But musically, you can always improve. Every time you play it, it's a different experience. I just performed it with Temirkanov at the Verbier Festival [in Switzerland]. I learned a lot of new things from working with him. I'm sure with [BSO conductor] Marin [Alsop] it will be different, too. She's wonderful, a great musician. I always enjoy being with her."
The feeling is mutual.
"I think he's phenomenal," says Alsop, who conducted the pianist in the same Tchaikovsky concerto a few years ago with the Pittsburgh Symphony and has collaborated with him elsewhere.
Because Lang Lang's technique is so assured, Alsop says, "he has such ease with the piano that he's almost bored. It's so second-nature that he has the ability to be looking around, interacting with the other musicians onstage, as he plays. He can take it to another level of communication, a new level of comfort."
Alsop has heard the complaints about Lang Lang's Jim Carrey-worthy contortions at the keyboard and his penchant for interpretive license, but she doesn't buy any of it.
"For me, there are two types of performance experience. One is organic, physically natural and unforced," the conductor says. "The other borders on histrionics. With Lang Lang, I don't ever remember thinking, 'Oh, this is such a show he's putting on.' I find him completely authentic and sincere. I find his interpretations very sincere as well. The sound he can make, the technical prowess, the sheer love and joy he has onstage, how can you criticize that?"
The pianist, who studied at the Beijing Conservatory and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, seemed thoroughly at home with himself as a musician when he was still in his teens and sounds just as self-aware and confident now that he's 27.
"I'm not perfect, I know," he says. "The important thing is to keep improving as an artist. In the end, I need to figure out what I need to do with my playing. Of course, I should take suggestions from other people. And I read reviews, good or bad. But with Twitter, Facebook and all the Web sites, everybody is kind of a reviewer today. How can you take everything written about you so seriously? You will lose yourself. Just concentrate on the music and find your own way."
Lately, Lang Lang has found his way to some new repertoire and styles. He just finished a concert tour with veteran jazz pianist Herbie Hancock that showcased the duo in works by Gershwin, Ravel and Vaughan Williams. "It was awesome," Lang Lang says. "I learned so much from Herbie."
A first excursion into chamber music - pieces by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff - also figured into Lang Lang's recent activity; a recording of that venture will be forthcoming. He has also tried his hand at accompanying stellar opera singers Cecilia Bartoli and Placido Domingo in recital.