Classical pianist Lang Lang on reimagining the magical music of Disney

The Chinese artist's latest album features new arrangements of classic Disney film scores

Lang Lang performed songs from the album The Disney Book in Ithra, Saudi Arabia on Thursday. Photo: Ahmed Al Thani
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One hundred years on and songs from the Walt Disney Company continue to inspire.

With the US production studio responsible for creating the enduringly adored characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and pioneering animated musicals celebrating its centenary in October, classical music star Lang Lang recorded some of its renowned scores for a new album, The Disney Book.

Speaking to The National before Thursday's concert at the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture, commonly known as Ithra, in the eastern Saudi Arabian city Dhahran, the Chinese pianist says he is heartened to play in locations off the beaten track in the kingdom.

Lang’s previous visit was in 2018, when he made his Saudi debut in a sold-out recital in the ancient oasis city of AlUla.

"That was really an eye-opening experience because I slept in a lavish tent for the first time in my life," he says.

"To see the open desert and caves and a different landscape was beautiful. That time there was a classical music concert and this time it is the music of Disney."

Lang's pedigree aside, the Ithra concert went on to be well received because of the universality of the material.

“Disney music is very multicultural, it's not just about Hollywood or a particular genre, and that's why it’s so popular,” he says.

“At the same time there is also this deep passion for classical music within the songs and it's this mix that makes them so popular.”

Lang points to one of the earliest films, 1940 masterpiece Fantasia, with its interpolations of music by composers Ludwig van Beethoven and Igor Stravinsky as an example of the way classical music inspires Disney films.

The album's track list covers nearly a century of Disney films from 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 2021's Encanto.

The former title introduced Lang, 41, to that enchanted world as a child.

He recalls being spooked by the poisoned apple responsible for Snow White's deep slumber.

"I was so scared that I didn't touch an apple for a month," he says.

"But my love really grew with those short charming episodes with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

“And while I loved the animation, it was really how the music fit the motion picture at the same time that was really touching."

Even without the visual aid, there is a lot to enjoy in The Disney Book. Modern interpretations of Disney staples include a jazzy take on The Bare Necessities from The Jungle Book, while the intimate Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag) from Mary Poppins is simply exquisite.

Lang says the song, made famous in the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews as nanny Mary Poppins, resembles the work of Russian Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

“It is a very beautiful song,” he says. “It has these big emotional lines and it's just a warm-hearted appeal.”

The expansive repertoire matches the ambitions of Ithra.

Built by Saudi Aramco and opened in 2017, the $400 million complex includes an arts and children's museum, library, theatre, cinema and exhibition halls.

Ithra aims to place Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province on the global culture map and Lang joins a growing list of performers including music companies such as Russia's Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and La Scala from Italy.

"It's exciting to play here and it just shows you how the reach of classical music is really broad, from East Asia and China, Japan, Korea and now the Middle East," he says.

"And to have Saudi Arabia open for classical music is a pretty big deal.

“This will lead to a lot of new opportunities for classical musicians who already know that Saudi is open for culture."

Updated: December 08, 2023, 6:02 PM