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Pauline Lerner

Lang Lang Performs and Discusses Tchaikovsky: Tchaikovsky Born Again

June 1, 2007 at 3:50 AM


I recently had the great pleasure of hearing Lang Lang, the young, Chinese virtuoso pianist, play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The program also included Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody #2 and City Scape, a contemporary piece. After the concert there was still more entertainment: a question-and-answer session with the audience, Lang Lang, Slatkin, and Jennifer Higdon, the composer of City Scape.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 and Violin Concerto have a lot in common. Both are extremely difficult to play technically. Both can sound like a bunch of sound and fury to a very casual listener. The listener soon discovers melody, rhythm, and mood changes and likes the concerto. Some critics look down on these two concertos because of their “mass appeal,” as if that diminished their artistry. The two concertos even share historical disasters. Tchaikovsky dedicated his first piano concerto to Nicolai Rubinstein, who dismissed the work as “unplayable.” Fortunately, Hans von Bulow was traveling in Russia at this time, looking for a new piano concerto for his upcoming American debut. Von Bulow loved the concerto, and so did the audience when he played it at its premier in Boston. Likewise, Tchaikovsky dedicated his violin concerto to Leopold Auer, who declared it, too, “unplayable.” Tchaikovsky found another violinist to play the concerto at its premiere. It was not well received. Von Bulow, then the most influential music critic in Europe, said of it, “The violin is not played but rather beaten black and blue.” Today both concertos are widely played and very popular.

If anyone thought that the Tchaikovsky Piano Concert #1 was just a lot of loud noise, they would have decided otherwise after Lang Lang played just a few notes. The opening chords are thunderous, but almost immediately afterwards, Lang Lang played a few notes which were a sort of respite of tenderness. The whole performance was like that: There were breathtaking changes of mood and displays of sensitivity where they were least expected. The old war horse of a composition was born again. I felt as though I were hearing an entirely new piece. The artistry of both Lang Lang and Slatkin contributed to this miracle. Slatkin used all the sections of instruments in the orchestras as beautiful, powerful voices, effecting changes of moods, often where I was surprised to hear them.

After the breath taking performance, Lang Lang, Slatkin, and Higdon took questions from the audience and answered in a delightfully relaxed and happy way. I’ll focus here on questions involving Lang Lang and Slatkin.

Someone asked whether the performers minded the applause between movements of the pieces. I was interested in this question because I couldn’t restrain myself from clapping with other members of the audience between the movements of the concerto. Slatkin said, “Absolutely not!” In fact, he said that they loved it. It showed that the listeners were so full of emotion that they couldn’t contain themselves from expressing it. He added that applause between movements was the norm years ago. When Beethoven conducted the premier of his Seventh Symphony, there was so much applause after the slow movement that Beethoven had the orchestra replay the whole movement.

Someone else asked Lang Lang how he became interested in playing the piano. Lang Lang replied that it was because of a Tom and Jerry cartoon which he saw when he was 2 years old. The episode of the cartoon was called “Cat Concerto,” and the music, although Lang Lang did not know it at the time was Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2, which Lang Lang recorded in 2005.

In response to a question about European music in China, Lang Lang said that after the Cultural Revolution, when European music was repressed in China, there was a huge wave of European music, which is now very popular in China. In fact, there are 20 million kids in China studying piano now.

Someone noted Lang Lang’s extraordinary accomplishments at a young age (25) and asked him what he wants to accomplish in the next 5-10 years. Lang Lang said that he wants to get kids to listen to and play more classical music. He wants to teach kids to feel music as it’s played and connect to it. Slatkin said that he has found it very helpful to establish a point of commonality with the kids he talks to. He said that when he mentions that he met Cold Play at the Grammy awards, the kids seem to take more interest in him. Lang Lang mentioned that he has played on Sesame Street, and he had a lot of fun. (I looked for it on youtube but couldn’t find it, although I did find performances by James Galway and Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street.) Lang Lang said that he feels great whenever a kid sees him and says, “I know you. You’re Piano Man. Do you know Elmo?” Regarding his performances, Lang Lang said that he wants to perform concertos he has not performed before. He said that he currently has “about forty concertos in my pocket.”

Another person asked Lang Lang whether he ever became discouraged in his playing and wanted to quit. The pianist laughed and said, “Yes, many times.” In fact, when he was six, his teacher told him that he was hopeless and fired him. Fortunately, Lang Lang ignored the teacher’s opinion of him.

A child in the audience asked how he could get to be a great pianist like Lang Lang. Slatkin responded that this is a very personal matter which the child should discuss with his teacher. Lang Lang laughed and said, “No. Just get up at 5 AM, start practicing, and drive your neighbors crazy.”

In response to the question, “How many hours a day do you practice?” Lang Lang said that as a child he practiced at least 6 hours a day, but now he only practices about 2 hours a day. I and most of the audience were shocked, but Lang Lang added, “That’s because most days I’m either giving a concert or riding on an airplane.”

The question, “How did you break into the classical music star scene?” drew some interesting answers. Lang Lang said that he was often on a list of substitute performers, but usually he was #4 or #5. His great break came when the pianist Andre Watts got sick suddenly, and Lang Lang subbed for him. He was an immediate success. Slatkin said that back in the 70s, he subbed for Ricardo Muti, and that’s how his stardom began.

Another child asked Lang Lang how he memorized a piano concerto. Lang Lang said, “I live with it. I play it over and over and over. I go to sleep listening to a recording of it. Sometimes I have strange dreams about it. I dream that I’m talking to Mozart in Chinese.”

Someone asked about the role of the orchestra in a concerto. Slatkin said that the orchestra was not just for support, but for collaboration. He said that this was especially true in the case of an outstanding soloist like Lang Lang.” My impression exactly.

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