Here’s a barely kept secret: musicians are not often very nice people to talk to. Perhaps it is something about the worldwide fame and recognition, immense wealth or strenuous touring schedule, but encounters with stars are not always entirely pleasant.
That is not the case with Lang Lang, the piano virtuoso who is often described as the most famous classical musician in the world. The guy who signed a US$3million (Dh2.6m) record deal – unprecedented for a classical player – has perhaps earned the right to a certain, how shall we say, sense of self worth.
So it is a welcome surprise to discover that Lang Lang – whose name translates loosely as sunny or bright – is also a warm and friendly conversationalist.
He gushes about his last visit to Abu Dhabi, in 2009, recalling the “sweet” youngsters he introduced to Debussy at a masterclass, and the camels he “played” with in the desert. When we are cut off suddenly at the end of our half-hour chat, he calls me back to stress again how grateful he is to hear that I enjoyed seeing him in concert some years ago. It is normally the other way around.
I am convinced this is no PR stunt. Lang Lang simply breathes music with a youthful zeal and clear-sighted zest, without abstraction or pretension.
The audience is there to be pleased – and for Lang Lang the pleasure is all his. Does he, just maybe, feel a little pressure when he performs for world leaders such as Kofi Annan, Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II or former Chinese president Hu Jintao.
“I don’t really feel that these people are hard to please,” says the 33-year-old, brightly.
“For me all audiences are the same, whether you are a president, a royal or a kid from Africa or China – I don’t feel any difference. Everyone is important when they come to a concert – the most important thing is that they like music. We hold music first at the end of the day.”
The oft-quoted story goes that Lang Lang fell for the piano at the age of 2, after hearing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 in an episode of Tom and Jerry.
By the age of 5, he had played his first recital, and at 9 was enrolled at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music. At 12, Lang Lang was winning international competitions and by 14, domestic fame was secured as a soloist at the China National Symphony’s nationally televised inaugural concert. Then he moved to the United States and became a superstar.
Following a headline-grabbing performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1999 – at the age of 17 – his ascent has been unstoppable.
In 2008, he played to a billion people at the opening of the Beijing Olympics – still his proudest moment – and a year later Time listed the pianist on its annual 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Around the same time, the term “the Lang Lang effect” was coined, a phenomenon credited with inspiring 40 million classical piano students in China.
“In Beijing, of course, when I walk everybody knows who I am – in New York it’s less, for sure,” he says, modestly.
Today, Lang Lang has become something of a poster boy, not only for the piano, but for classical music in general. He performs in trainers, soundtracks video games and hosts four-way YouTube jams with Brazilian footballer Neymar. He played with Metallica at the 2014 Grammys and, a year later, with Pharrell Williams.
He has been appointed both a Unicef International Goodwill Ambassador and a United Nations Messenger of Peace. He also founded the Lang Lang International Music Foundation to encourage tuition worldwide, and the Lang Lang Piano Academy educational programme.
Lang Lang wants the world to hear what he hears.
“I do believe classical music is for everybody,” he says. “There’s no huge barrier between classical music and other art. Maybe you need to have a little bit of insight to know what’s going on – maybe a little bit – but not very much.”
But for all his wide-eyed utopian view, Lang Lang is not universally loved – far from it. It is not uncommon for his concerts and albums to receive two-star reviews, yet his technical aptitude is beyond dispute. Just the idea of Lang Lang is enough to infuriate many a critic.
The naysayers fall into two main camps: first, there exists a sharp prejudice among those who simply do not think it’s acceptable to play Rachmaninoff or Chopin one night, and then get onstage alongside John Legend or Psy the next. We can dismiss those people as snobs.
The second brand of critic opines that Lang Lang’s performances are too theatrical, that his playing lacks empathy and emotion, and is both overly showy and excessively brittle.
“It depends on the music – when the music needs me to be over the top, I will be,” says Lang Lang. “If the music is very deep and thoughtful, I will play as deep and softly as possible.
“A great pianist needs to have everything – like any artist. You need to be a good actor, a good painter, a good communicator – it’s a package.
“You cannot just play the piano – you need to play the piano with your heart, your mind, your guts, your imagination, your dreams, your fantasies, your images.
“It’s a combination of everything you are.”
Lang Lang on his career, Chopin and clapping during performances
On Thursday’s programme, which includes Tchaikovsky’s 12-part piano suite The Seasons, Bach’s Italian Concerto and Chopin’s Four Scherzos.
“The first half is a very beautiful piece, very poetic, and the second half very virtuosic, lots of fast notes and technical, passionate passages – it’s a good contrast.”
On his last visit to Abu Dhabi in 2009.
“I really like Abu Dhabi because the people are so nice. I stayed five days, I even had a little holiday. I went to some little villages to see how the country developed from the very beginning, I went on the desert safari in a big jeep – I remember after 10 minutes I almost fainted, because it was such an exciting roller-coaster ride in the desert. That was unbelievable. Right after that I had a nice dinner with my parents and had fun playing with the camels – I had a very nice night.”
On clapping between movements.
“I have no problem with that. In Mozart’s time, people clapped all the time, everywhere, so it’s OK with me.”
On friend and collaborator Herbie Hancock, who headlined the Abu Dhabi Festival in 2014.
“Herbie is my favourite musician. I love Herbie, he’s like my older brother. He taught me so many things. He’s so unique and special – but at the same time, we have so many things in common. I’m really appreciative to have such a good mentor.”
On his practise routine.
“Two hours a day, plus the concert. Ten years ago it was a little bit more – three to four hours – and 20 years ago, I could stay at home and practise for six to eight hours.”
On his desert-island disc.
"Bach's Goldberg Variations. Glenn Gould? Absolutely, the late version [from 1981]."
Lang Lang in Recital is at Emirates Palace on Thursday, April 14 at 8pm. The concert is sold out but return tickets may become available at the venue one hour before the performance