Lang Lang on Mozart, Metallica, and Music Education For All

The Classical Superstar Talks Mozart, Metallica, and Music Education.
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Internationally acclaimed pianist Lang Lang has achieved extraordinary artistic success. He had played with major U.S. orchestra by the age of 20, was the first Chinese pianist ever to perform with both the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras, and has given command performances for world leaders across the globe—including a White House state dinner in 2011. His performing with artists in other genres—including Herbie Hancock at the 2009 Brit Awards, Metallica at the 2014 Grammys, and Psy at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games—has also put a fresh and fearless face on classical piano.

He’s also as impassioned an educator as he is a performer. His performance at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing inspired literally millions of children in China to begin learning classical piano—a phenomenon dubbed “the Lang Lang effect.” That same year, he launched the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, which provides music education opportunities for children around the globe. In 2009, Time magazine named him one of the “100 most influential people in the world.” Now only 32, his combination of virtuosity and outreach has made him the new millennium’s de facto ambassador of classical—a Van Cliburn for today’s smaller and hyper-connected world.

Born in Shenyang, China, he was inspired at age three to study piano after watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon, where he saw Tom play Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” At age five, he won his first competition. After experiencing heartbreak at the age of nine, when his teacher refused to continue his lessons, he recovered his childhood ambition of a piano career when he discovered Mozart. His latest CD, The Mozart Album, is a collaboration with conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as a collection of some of Lang Lang’s solo performances. Keyboard sat down with Lang Lang’s to capture his reflections on Mozart, collaborations, music education, and what it means to him to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Scroll past the video for our in-depth interview.

On The Mozart Album

How did your collaboration with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic come about?

I met Nikolaus in 2007 at the Salzburg Festival, and I played a Goldberg Variation for him. He gave me a lesson on it, and I just really fell in love with his art and his interpretation—liberal, but very classic. And then we started to talk about the possibility of working together. We played with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2010 at Carnegie Hall and we did Beethoven Number 1. The concert really surprised a lot of people because they think he and I together would be kind of a weird pairing. But actually it was a really incredible concert. Then we decided to do a recording of Mozart. First he asked me, “Can you do it on a period instrument, like a harpsichord?” I said, “No, no. I’ve never played the old instruments in my life. Let’s do it on a piano, but we can do it in the style of the period instrument. “Then we started to look into the recording schedule. I’m so grateful because we had such a nice four days—every day, six hours of work. At age 85, Nikolaus stood there the whole time, and gave me everything in his mind. I’m deeply appreciative and deeply inspired by him. It was, for me, the best recording session ever. He really inspired me to play better.

How do you use your imagination when you play Mozart?

A lot of people say Mozart is very easy for kids but difficult for adults. The truth is, it’s very difficult for kids and it’s even more difficult for adults! I always wanted to play in a very elegant style, but when I was a kid I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the finger control. So then over the years, I’ve worked with many musicians on Mozart: people like Eschenbach, Daniel Barenboim, my piano teacher Gary Graffman—so many great pianists. A lot of conductors gave me great ideas, too. So now I think when I play Mozart I have an idea of what kind of interpretation I want to do. But still, the Harnoncourt interpretation is very rare because he brings the countryside of Salzburg to it. Mozart is such a liberal composer musically, but he has such a taste of tradition, which makes him very special. One of the keys to play Mozart is, the left hand is like the roots of the tree. You need to have a very solid left hand. The right hand is the leaves. Also, one of the secrets of playing Mozart is to swing—always swing his music.

Why did you choose those particular pieces—those early sonatas and the concertos?

Actually in the beginning we just liked to do a concerto album and I chose one major concerto, the G major. And then I chose the minor concerto to have the contrast. And then I thought, maybe we should make a Mozart album instead of just a concerto because I’m also playing the three sonatas this year as the whole entire first half [of my concerts]. So then we did this. And then I thought, let’s have some fun with it. So I also put in the “Turkish March” and some small pieces. So, it turned into a Mozart album.

What drew you to Mozart as a child?

In the very beginning, Mozart was my idol because he was like a fairy tale to me. He composed when he was three; when he was five, he had already composed operas. He’s the perfect example for all of us to learn music and, frankly, the best composer for babies to listen to pre-birth. I even had a toy called Baby Mozart. Then, the way he played for the royal king and the queen, at only seven years old, traveling on the carriage everyday—like a fairy tale.

Where do you think Mozart’s real genius lies in his piano repertoire?

It looks very simple, but everything is there. Sometimes you see the simplest words in a great novel, and Mozart is like that. [Hums melody.] It’s so easy to remember. Later, Chopin copied a little bit—not copied, but followed a bit—with these very liberal melodic lines. But when Mozart touched a little harmony, it changed the whole thing. It’s as if you see a cloud coming, then you see little tears falling down. He’s so detailed. His music really seems like God wrote it through him. When you see his handwriting, unlike any other composer, it’s perfect. I’ve never seen such a thing in my life.

On Live Performance

You play as many as 120 concerts per year. Do performances ever lose their excitement for you?

Every concert is different. This week I will play with St. Louis and then next week I’ll play with the New York Philharmonic, and then I’ll do the United Nations concert, then a recital on Long Island. And I’m going to open the Louis Vuitton museum in Paris. Every concert is a new challenge. So in a way, I like it. If I don’t get a stiff neck, it’s fine [laughs]. The challenge is when you do it night after night. Last week in Cleveland I did three different concertos, four nights in a row. The first night was the opening and the third night was a gala, so they were very demanding concerts. That’s hard for me. But other than that, if you always have one day’s break in between it’s no problem.

Does having an audience in front of you fuel your fire?

Sometimes you actually feel the excitement. Sometimes you feel that they’re breathing together with you. You can feel that your music, the other musicians onstage, and the audience have become one. That’s the best feeling.

When you were studying in Shenyang, there were professors present from the Eastman School of Music. Did hearing Westerners play for the first time affect the way you played?

When I was about five-and-a-half, I saw foreigners play piano for the first time. It was really wonderful because in the summer of 1988, that festival came to my hometown; and it was a very, very intense ten days. Every day I’d wake up at, like, six. It was the first time I heard someone play jazz from the U.S. Then also I heard Nelita True and Fernando Laires, who are wife and husband. They came to my hometown. They played four-hands music together on two pianos. I remember one thing Fernando said that’s so important: Being a pianist is very easy; you just move the fingers. But to become a great pianist, you need to move the heart, mind, and everything else. He said, “So it’s your choice. You want to just move the fingers and become a pianist, or do you want to become a real pianist?” And I remember the most touching moment. Ten years ago I went to the Eastman School because of the Rochester Philharmonic, and they came to me with this old picture. It was me, six years old, taking a picture with them.

What was your reaction?

I said, “Your visit to China really made many musicians, like me, follow this ride.” Maybe 25 years ago when they came to China, they didn’t think about who they were going to inspire. Maybe they thought they’d just have a good time and share music. But they actually inspired a whole new generation, like Isaac Stern did in China for [the documentary film] From Mao to Mozart. It was a little, simple visit for him, but it changed the whole music circle because then he brought Chinese musicians to study in Europe. It really changed the world of it.

Classical Meets Jazz . . . and Metal

We’ve been featuring Herbie Hancock since Keyboard magazine began. How has your relationship with him influenced you?

He is absolutely one of my absolute favorite musicians in the world, period. He gave me the confidence to play a little bit of jazz. Before him, I was just so afraid of playing. The first time I met him, Herbie said, “Do you play a little bit of jazz?” I said, “Yeah, but Herbie, in front of you, I don’t even want to say the word!” He said, “You shouldn’t be afraid. Let me show you some tricks. Give me a piece.” So I played him a Gershwin piece. He said, “Let me do something for you,” and he started playing, separating the chords, changing the rhythm. He changed the whole thing—it totally opened up. I started playing a little like he showed me, and he was on the other piano. He said, “Now I’m going to add beats.” Then he took me to a jam session. Esperanza Spalding, the beautiful, great bass player and singer, also showed me some things.

We also played classical music. We played Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite”—a four-handed thing. We also tried Vaughan Williams, the British composer. We had three big tours together: Europe, Asia, and the U.S. It was so successful that every place we went, we were asked to play a second show. We’ve also recorded “Rhapsody in Blue” together, but we haven’t released it yet.

How do you think the classical community received your 2014 Grammys performance with Metallica?

In the beginning, everybody was so scared, including myself. I was like, “Oh my, this is heavy stuff!” But afterwards, people said positive things, because they thought it was a very adventurous but good work in the end. I think “One” is a very good piece. It was fresh for classical music fans and heavy metal fans.

On Music Education

Could say a few words about what’s come to be called the “Lang Lang effect”—people being inspired to become pianists just because they hear you?

We are very, very keen to inspire the next generation of musicians, both professional and amateur. For the professionals, we try to help get them record deals, concerts, the best teachers and opportunities, music camps. So now we have like 15 of what we call the Lang Lang Foundation prodigies. I believe some of them will become the next big thing, seriously. We’re very fortunate because all the best talents audition for our foundation. This is very, very powerful. Some of the kids are so small, but they play like masters. They’re kids: “No, I want ice cream!” And we say, “Have ice cream first and then come play for us.” Then after the ice cream they sit down and play, and I’m like, “An 11-year-old can play like that?”

In video clips of the master classes, it’s striking how young the kids are.

I know—to play like that. We’ve started three schools in America: two in Boston, and we just started a school in Harlem, New York. We build the classes, hire the teachers, and we donate something like 40 keyboards so they can practice. The piano—the keyboard—has gotten so popular that they’re fighting for practice time. It’s so great, because every one of them will learn music and will do something. So for the United Nations concert, we’re bringing 80 kids from all over the world. This will be a lot of work for our foundation. We only have about four people [on staff]; we’re going to work like hell!

You’ve built music programs, some from the ground up, in communities that don’t have resources. Have you had to convince people that kids need piano?

Actually, we’re getting letters from so many schools about what we call our Keys of Inspiration class. They all want to be part of it. We just need to select the ones that really need it. [The program] is only six years old and we have an almost three million dollar budget. So we can do a lot, but we still need to be very careful because we want to build a method. We want to build a whole system, so we want to start with only a few schools. Once those are successful, we can use our method in more schools. So we save energy, we save money, and we have a system.

How would you advise music teachers to engage students who aren’t initially interested in classical piano?

First of all, don’t be afraid of classical music. I had high school here in the U.S. I knew exactly what my classmates were thinking about. They’d ask, “What are you doing here in America?” I’d answer, “I’m here to study piano.” “You mean Elton John?” I’d say, “I like him, but I’m talking about Mozart and Beethoven.” “Oh my God, that’s, like, totally dead, right?” I’d say, “Just like Shakespeare, it never dies. It’s classic.” Then I’d I play a little bit for them and they’d say things like, “Hey, I know this tune! That’s classical music? I thought that was Michael Jackson.” When they hear it, they actually like it. So it’s just the way you bring it to them.

How would you describe your own teaching approach?

Before every piece, I’ll try to do some personalizing: “Listen for the thirds, listen for the climax, listen to the happiness.” I want to highlight something that they should listen for, rather than just play it flat. Last week I was in Akron, Ohio. I played for LeBron James’ school. We did a joint venture together for sports and music—a lot of athletic kids and a lot of performing arts kids came. One boy who was only nine or ten said, “I have a piece. It doesn’t have a name. Can I play it for you?” He starts playing a beautiful piece and then he said, “Do you think you can give me a name for this piece?” I said, “Okay. Maybe you should call this ‘A Starry Night’ because it [evokes] such beautiful stars and such a universe.” I want kids to get involved. I want them to play, not just talk. Music is like language but you must play it. You can’t only talk about it. That’s why in Long Island next week I’m playing with 100 kids together. It’s called “101 Pianists.” Everybody will play four-handed music, on 50 pianos. I want them to practice with a partner, like doing homework. For pianists, the difficult thing is, we’re alone so much every day. It’s just you and a piano. You don’t want that all the time. You could become a nerd! [Laughs.]

Having won your first piano competition at age five, what advice would you have for a young person who’s about to compete?

I was a competition freak when I was a kid. I thought it was all about winning. Of course, that motivated me to practice, because I wanted to be number one. It’s like an athlete’s competitive spirit. But at the end of the day I realized that music is not a war. Music is something that inspires. You do need to have a fighting spirit—keep going, never give up. But it’s not just a race. You need to have the precision, perfect technique, beautiful musicality. So, I would say to kids, keep that fiery spirit, but don’t take the results of a competition too seriously.

Where do you think music education is going in the U.S. as compared with China?

They’re quite different. In China, we’re not worried about general music education because most of the schools have music classes and most of the kids play an instrument—maybe not everybody, but the majority plays. And classical music means something in China. It means you’ve had a good education and a good background.

Here in the U.S., it’s different. Studying classical music is a little bit out of fashion. Maybe 100 years ago, the U.S. was kind of like China today. Now, everybody wants to have a guitar but not a piano. But talking about music in general, the U.S. still has the biggest market—and it was my first market, the first place I became successful. I’d say we need to improve the public schools’ music classes; if we can do that, education really changes everything.

How would you encourage a musician who’s struggling career-wise?

That’s a difficult question because, on one hand, we want everybody to keep practicing, to keep their dreams alive. But on the other side is reality: There are not that many professional pianists on the international stage, and the truth is, not everybody who wants to will become a professional pianist. So I would say, “Work hard, but keep doors open.” You can be the best teacher. You can be the best tutor. You can be the best lecturer. Or you can have a school. There are a lot of things you can do. You are still a successful person.

Tell us about having been named a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

I must say, this is probably the biggest honor of my life. Recently, I saw Leonardo DiCaprio just became a Messenger of Peace as well. We’re actually friends. To work with people like Leonardo or George Clooney or Stevie Wonder or Queen Noor of Jordan, it’s really something where you can synergize the power of different people. This year for our U.N. gala, we have Alec Baldwin hosting, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is master of ceremonies. Sting is our special guest, and we’ll also have 80 kids from all over the world. But I want to do real things. Afterwards we’ll have a fundraiser. Our goal is to raise a million dollars for global education and music classes. “Messenger of Peace” is not just a title.

What has been the happiest piano moment in your career to date?

As a professional pianist, it would be when I finally played Carnegie Hall or Vienna. But as a person, the happiest moments are when I’m working on the foundation, with the U.N., and for children. I’m going to St. Louis this coming Friday to do a concert for kids who are in the hospital. That’s the best moment.