Friday, April 1, 2005

“There are maybe 9, 10 million young pianists in China now,” says international piano phenom Lang Lang. There, young classical artists like himself are treated like rock stars.

“It is different from the U.S.,” he explains. “Everyone goes to [classical] concerts and CD signings. They have to have police to hold back the crowds, and to have this life is the dream of many young Chinese people.”

Mr. Lang may not need a police escort to make his way through the District this weekend — and he can forget about a free case of Remy Martin in his Kennedy Center dressing room — but he certainly arrived in town with a full schedule.

In addition to preparing for his solo recital today in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS), the energetic 22-year-old also dropped by the Levine School of Music, where he led a master class for promising young local pianists.

“I love to teach kids,” he says. “I think it’s important to reach the very young.”

Traditionally, a master class is conducted before a live audience by a venerated — and venerable — artist. Three to five graduate students will perform a solo work for the master, who sits close by onstage. Students then are critiqued individually on their performances. The artist also may jump in and perform a passage or two just to demonstrate how it might be done, to the delight of the audience. It’s a little like a series of minirecitals punctuated by insider tech tips by a revered guru.

Both students and the audience benefit from the unique insights of the artist by becoming better performers or more astute listeners. Everyone always hopes the visiting artist will treat the group to an exciting surprise solo at the end of the class.

Definitely not an old-timer, Mr. Lang breaks the stereotype of the master-class format. First, he endeavors to work with younger students, teens and preteens rather than polished grads.

Also, because he is not much older than the students he’s helping at the Levine School and elsewhere, he still remembers vividly what it was like at the beginning of his own career — an advantage in relating more readily to the needs of unseasoned youngsters.

“More than anything, young people need reassurance,” he says. “I try to help them know that real music springs from their own minds and hearts. To bring that inspiration from inside their hearts into the world — that’s the way they connect to the audience.”

Lang Lang was born in 1982 in Shenyang, a gritty Chinese industrial city that “was once the capital of old Manchuria,” he says, comparing it to Rust Belt cities Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

In Shenyang, his father was a professional violinist in the local symphony. Young Lang showed early interest in music as well, beginning piano lessons at 3 and playing a public recital just two years later. Realizing that the precocious child was destined for greater things, the family relocated to Beijing when he was 9.

“It was very hard for us,” Mr. Lang says. Living quarters in their tiny apartment were cramped. In winter, the heating was far from reliable. “My father would sometimes crawl into my bed and stay there awhile to warm it for me before it was time to sleep,” he remembers.

Nevertheless, living in Beijing also gave Mr. Lang access to better teachers and more competitions, which he began winning with regularity.

By 1995, he had performed the entire set of Chopin Etudes at the Beijing Concert Hall and copped first prize at the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians Competition in Japan, playing Chopin’s lustrous Second Piano Concerto in F-minor.

By 15, he was in the United States, studying in Philadelphia — where he still resides when not on tour — with renowned American pianist Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute.

His big breakcame when, at 17, he was drafted as a last-minute sub for the ailing Andre Watts, who was slated to perform the famously difficult First Piano Concerto of Tchaikovsky with the Chicago Symphony. He drew rave reviews, and the invitations started pouring in from around the world.

Mr. Lang already has performed with most of the world’s major symphonies. But a personal highlight for him was a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York. “My father was there,” he says. “And he came up to the stage to play one piece with me. It was so exciting.”

The musician’s industrial-strength Kennedy Center program today runs the gamut from Mozart to Schumann, from Liszt to Rachmaninoff. Highlights include Chopin’s dashing Sonata No. 3 and Liszt’s irresistible Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

Mr. Lang recalls first hearing the Liszt as background music in a manic “Tom and Jerry” cartoon on Chinese television. “It was in English, but you didn’t need to know the language to know what they were doing,” he recalls with a laugh. “Lots of Chinese kids learned to love this music with Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny.”

And you thought music was the international language.

WHAT: A recital by pianist Lang Lang featuring works of Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Liszt

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

WHEN: Today at 4:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $25 to 55

PHONE: 800/444-1324 or 202/467-4600

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