Just call Lang Lang the piano Superman

With the rock-star aura and the fervent fans, classical pianist Lang Lang is killing in concert halls, on YouTube, and in 3-D

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      His wardrobe is supplied exclusively by Versace. There’s an Adidas Gazelle sneaker bearing his name. He’s got young, adoring fans in every corner of the globe and an exclusive recording deal with Sony reputed to be worth a cool $3 million. It’s safe to say the classical-music world has never seen anything quite like Lang Lang.

      At 28, the Chinese-born pianist has garnered so much attention that in 2009, Time Magazine deemed him one of the 100 most influential people in the world—alongside Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Brad Pitt. His talents at the keyboard are only the half of it. His playing may have initially brought him recognition, but what’s turned him into a phenomenon is the way he’s forged a career unlike any other in the classical arena, embracing new media and platforms that other so-called “serious” artists might deem beneath them. After all, you’re unlikely to find Louis Lortie recording a 3-D concert DVD or, for that matter, performing on the soundtrack to the popular Sony PlayStation game Gran Turismo 5.

      When the Straight connects by phone with Lang, who performs in a Vancouver Recital Society presentation tomorrow (January 21) at the Orpheum Theatre, he’s keen to discuss his approach to promoting classical music. “Not many people know about classical music in the mainstream media,” he explains from Dallas, on a rare day off. Cheerful and upbeat, he is an easy conversationalist, despite not speaking in his native language. “Everybody is on the Internet, everyone is on Skype, everyone is on Twitter, or Facebook, or websites, live-streaming, or gaming,” he goes on. “So we absolutely need to use those facilities, to do more live streaming, to do more Internet concerts and master classes, and at the same time, keep playing concerts in concert halls. People will come more often to the concert hall after they see live streaming on the Internet.”

      True to his word, Lang counts among his honours the title of first ambassador for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra—alongside recent stints as worldwide ambassador for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, and enthusiastic supporter of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (where, in addition to performing in the opening ceremonies, he ran in the torch relay and guest-hosted spots on ZDF German Television). Although based in New York, Lang is shamelessly proud of his home country.

      “I think China is becoming very important to the world,” he asserts. “It’s actually pretty good to the world, because now the world is more even, you know? You have the wonderful countries here—U.S. and Canada and many European countries—and then you have China, India, Brazil, and Russia, the new super-growing countries. And it’s a very good balance. It’s not like one superpower and then the other 100.”

      The growth of China’s economy, he is quick to point out, is good news for classical-music sales. “We have so many young artists in China,” he notes, “more than in the U.S. and Europe. So I see this has a really great impact to help classical music worldwide. They have more than 40 million kids learning piano [in China] these days.” (It’s a phenomenon dubbed, incidentally, the Lang Lang effect.) “We have a very good music-study system in China,” he continues, “and all the little kids at elementary school have to have music lessons. In the West, because of the economy crisis, they cut their school orchestras and they cut their music classes, and that’s very unhealthy for their education.”

      Lang’s own musical upbringing, detailed in his 2008 autobiography Journey of a Thousand Miles, is now the stuff of legend. He was born in the industrial town of Shenyang to parents whose own musical ambitions were thwarted by the Cultural Revolution. At the age of nine, he was separated from his mother and carted off to Beijing by his authoritarian father, a man whose tyrannical disciplinary methods would even give the infamous Amy Chua (author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) pause.

      Determined that he become the “number one” pianist in the world, the elder Lang forced his son to practise hours upon hours a day, accepting nothing less than perfection. In a shocking incident, he urged his son to commit suicide after he was rejected by a piano teacher. That he not only survived this treatment but grew up to become, arguably, the world’s most popular classical musician is a testament to his indefatigable spirit, says Vancouver Recital Society artistic and executive director Leila Getz.

      “I think he is remarkable,” she enthuses. “That’s what still keeps my door open for Lang Lang. That he’s gotten through to this point and remained the way he is is extraordinary.” Getz’s relationship with Lang goes back to 1999, when she booked him for his Canadian debut. He was 16 years old, virtually unknown, and had yet to perfect his trademark spiky hair and rock-star aura. Is she surprised by his success? “Not one bit,” she asserts. “At the Recital Society, we say we book them young and then they become superstars. But I think he’s gone beyond that. He’s a celebrity.”

      Of course, like any major celebrity, he’s not without his detractors. An oft-heard quibble about his intensely physical playing is that he’s more about showmanship than substance—hence the nickname “Bang Bang”, coined by Christopher McDougall in Esquire. Getz is quick to defend him. “I think that it’s much too early to judge Lang Lang,” she insists. “I think he’s a phenomenally significant talent. Do I like histrionics and stuff? No. But you know, he’s a kid. And he’s finding his way. I think what’ll be interesting is to see how he’s received when he’s 45 years old.”

      The criticism clearly irks Lang, but he’s learned to shrug it off. “Of course, in everything you try to achieve, not everybody’s happy with it,” he says, defensively. “You can’t get frustrated when you read a bad review, because then the creative momentum is kind of lost.”

      Just as our interview is winding to a close, Lang brings the topic up again, keen to make a point. “If I play Liszt Concerto No. 1, yes, it is a big dramatic piece, so somehow you need to show technique a little bit,” he explains. “But when you play Beethoven early sonatas, you don’t need to show your technique. It’s more about musicianship.”¦And people, sometimes they judge Bach and Rachmaninoff in the same way. You can’t do that.” Besides, he says, “The truth is, I get much more good reviews than bad reviews. In a way, I have good fortune with the media, to have all this hype.”

      He adds, with a touch of pride, “You know, I’ve become quite a popular subject for people to write about.”

      The Vancouver Recital Society presents Lang Lang at the Orpheum on Friday (January 21).