Music Lang Lang
By Montague Gammon III

The heart-throb whom the New York Times hailed as the “hottest artist on the classical music planet,” 31 year old international celebrity pianist Lang Lang, kicks off the 2014 Virginia Arts Festival with an early Festival preview concert the night before Valentine’s Day at Chrysler Hall.

Anyone even vaguely aware of classical music who hasn’t heard about Lang Lang has been hiding under a Gibraltar sized boulder. That’s especially true of anyone interested in the interplay of traditional classical with contemporary culture.

If Pinkas Zukerman is today’s Paganini, Lang Lang is our contemporary Liszt.

Lang Lang is famous for his emotional and flamboyant playing, his phenomenal memory, his successful rise from impoverished 5 year old prodigy to seriously regarded, multi-millionaire soloist, and not the least, for the frightening recitations he has provided of his unfathomably harsh upbringing by an obsessed, monomaniacal martinet father.

His two autobiographical books, one for young adult readers, detail the pressure that his often angry father put on the boy from early childhood, making Lang Lang one of those serious artists who succeeded despite, not because of, parental pressure. (Maybe like Beethoven?) And there’s plenty of stuff online about that difficult relationship too.

And succeed he has. He gave his first public recital and conquered his first contest at 5 in his home city of Shenyang, China. Age 13 saw him earn worldwide notice with a win at the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians’ Competition. At 17, and a highly regarded student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he got rave reviews when he stepped in, last minute, for an ailing André Watts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The current soloist of choice for events like presidential inaugurations, Nobel Prize ceremonies, Olympic openings, general head-of-state concerts and the like, Lang Lang maintains a 100+ performance per year schedule while working to mentor children and support the musical education of young people.

He did play the Virginia Arts Festival back in 2006, just before he jumped from rising star to superstar (subset, classical music) status.

Festival Artistic and Executive Director Rob Cross booked this February’s concert two years ago, when Lang Lang’s management team took the initiative to contact him. Certain performances, Cross noted in a telephone conversation, are just too important to pass up, even when they do not fall into the usual springtime Festival slot.

Cross is a professional percussionist and member of the Virginia Symphony himself, but he makes the point that his high opinion of Lang Lang is bolstered by those who, he maintains, are even better equipped to judge: “The pianists I talk to, whom I trust, are just blown away by what he can do on the instrument.”

Those same pianists, Cross says, are especially impressed by the way Lang Lang handles “some of that big virtuosic repertoire – the ease with which he just throws it off.”

Cross points out that said “big virtuosic repertoire” is well represented in the four Chopin Ballades, #1-4, that make up the second half of Lang Lang’s Norfolk concert.

“In the Chopin you will get to see the virtuosity.”

Cross sums up Lang Lang’s artistic growth: ““People who heard him in the early part of his career were blown away by his virtuosity and proficiency…[his] technical brilliance astounded people. As he’s gotten older and matured he has blossomed as an artist and the insight that he [now] brings [is coupled with] incredible firepower.”

The three Mozart Sonatas – Nos 5, 4, and 8 – which make up the first half of the concert give Lang Lang scope to display that insight as well. “The first and second half [present a] really interesting contrast,” Cross says. “The reason I like this program is that you’re going to see the subtlety, the transparency of beautiful music making.”

“What excites me,” Cross continues, “He’s also one of those artists who has worked so hard to bring in a wider audience. In that sense I think of him as someone like [the cellist] Yo Yo Ma, who is so engaging, [who] brings down a lot of the barriers that sometimes might discourage people from coming to a cello recital or a piano recital for the first time.”

“I would encourage people … if you love great performances and excellence don’t NOT come!
This is a chance to hear a truly world class artist [Cross notes that the term is bandied about a lot, but appropriate in this context] … [someone among] the best in the world doing a 2 hour concert.”
Cross concludes: “I think it’s a great way to have an early Valentine’s Day.”

Lang Lang
February 13
Chrysler Hall

The program:
MOZART Piano Sonata No.5 in G major, KV 283
MOZART Piano Sonata No.4 in E-flat major, KV 282
MOZART Piano Sonata No.8 in A minor, KV 310
CHOPIN Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23
CHOPIN Ballade No.2 in F, Op.38
CHOPIN Ballade No.3 in A-flat, Op.47
CHOPIN Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52