At work with Lang Lang

Lang Lang talks touring, inspiration and dubstep.

When I meet the Tiger Woods of classical music, he’s dressed in a dark blazer, shirt and jeans. He’s far more attractive and appears fitter than the posed album covers and posters reflect. Which is just as well because his endless roster of commitments is enough to exhaust an athlete.

In the next month alone, Lang Lang will travel to Japan where he will play at Aichi Prefectural Art Theater, Nagoya; Symphony Hall, Osaka; Grand Hall, Hyogo Performing Arts Center and Suntory Hall before heading off to Salle Pleyel, Paris; followed by appearances in Vienna before heading off to the US to Symphony Hall, Boston, and then back to Europe to Gewandhaus Leipzig, Germany, followed by Bremen and Moscow State Conservatory Great Hall.

‘When I have a concert day, it’s very intense work, and when I have a free day it’s mostly about exercise and getting fresh air’

Added to his concert commitments are a vast number of appearances, promotional activities, and fundraising work for his foundation. It’s a wonder the pianist has time to visit the bathroom, let alone kick back and hang loose – if he stuck to the restrictions of the EU’s 2003 Working Time Directive, he’d be slacking off.

Lang Lang says that he has two types of day: ‘One is a typical travel day and the other is a typical concert day.’ What about a day off? ‘Well a travel day is like a day off actually,’ he laughs over a pot of chamomile tea. ‘When I have a concert day, it’s very intense work, and when I have a free day it’s mostly about exercise, body stretches, getting fresh air, seeing a movie, getting a couple of friends together for a drink. I have a very normal life, even though people see me travelling a lot. I’m normal because I travel with my mum and she really keeps me grounded and we talk about family things and we’re very family orientated.’

Lang Lang claims that he no longer goes clubbing. This, he says, is why he is able to juggle so many different activities. ‘After a concert I go back to the hotel and go onto the social media pages talking to my friends, talking on the phone, using Skype. When I’m at work, I’m in working mode, and when I’m not working I switch back.You need to have that so it doesn’t disturb your privacy otherwise you never calm down.’

Does he push himself to work so hard, or is he being pushed? ‘There’s a lot of work to do and I need to make decisions but it’s more like teamwork. All my people who work with me have worked with me in the past and we collaborate well. No one is forcing anyone; whether that is me with the management, or them with me – that never happens. I think you need to be honest with people because you can’t hide things. You can’t let it [what you do] be controlled by someone or control someone else, because you will not succeed. You really need to understand each other and not have a feeling of being used by someone.’

Lang Lang’s biography, Journey of a Thousand Miles, published by Random House in 11 languages, was released to critical acclaim and a children’s version, Playing with Flying Keys,was a hit with his army of young fans. Lang Lang frequently speaks to the media about his commitment to young people. In 2004, he was appointed International Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In 2008 he established the Lang Lang International Music Foundation with the goal of expanding young audiences and inspiring the next generation of musicians through outreach programmes. That same year he reached an audience of a billion following his performance at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

As a pianist he is propelled by a desire to give back. Classical music changed Lang Lang from a poor boy into multi-millionaire icon – in 2009, he appeared in Time’s annual list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World – and in turn he feels classical music can change the lives of others. His success inspired 40 million individuals to take up classical piano in China, consequently boosting piano production in the country. ‘A lot of young people don’t like classical music, they find it very boring,’ he says. ‘My aim is to inspire as many young people as possible through music, so everything needs to be around that. That’s why I’m involved with the Leeds Competition and the Grammys, as well as educational initiative works.’

One of his proudest achievements is his foundation, and the work it allows him to do with schools in China, as well as his own professional training school. ‘I started thinking about a foundation four years ago when I was 26. I have a wonderful supporter in my life, Sandy Weill, and his wife Joan, so certainly he helped us tremendously. I’ve known Sandy for almost 10 years since we met at a fundraiser concert at Carnegie Hall. He called me the Tiger Woods of classical music. Sandy is a great supporter and now every year he helps me so much, especially on the foundation front.’ Lang Lang also currently serves on the Weill Music Institute advisory committee as part of Carnegie Hall’s educational programme and is the youngest member of Carnegie Hall’s artistic advisory board.

What is most interesting is how Lang Lang’s approach fits with the ideas of ‘signified and signifier’ touted by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the philosopher Roland Barthes. The words ‘Lang Lang’, by virtue of his activities and associations, have become connected not just with classical music, but youth, vibrancy and endeavour. The words are loaded with connotation. Lang Lang has created his own mini-universe. No other contemporary classical music artist has been able to tap into the lucrative youth market like Lang Lang,who is estimated to be worth USD20m (€15m).

Now 30, at 25 he teamed up with Adidas to promote a limited edition of Lang Lang ‘Gazelles’ to be sold in selected stores on his global tour, including Dresden, Hamburg, Vienna, Florence, Barcelona, Essen and New York City. It was a shrewd move: Lang Lang did not lend his name to a bland sneaker or homogenous running shoe – the Gazelle is an iconic fashion item that has been worn by models, pop and rock stars, as well as kids in the know, since 1968.

‘You can do some collaborations, one track or two, but I much prefer to have real classical music content than changing it to some sort of weird stuff’

Lang Lang’s capacity to cover all bases is staggering: he’s down with the kids, in with the elite, and at home with consumer culture. The secret to his success is perhaps that he and his team know exactly who to get into bed with. At the 2008 50th Annual Grammy Awards held at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the pianist performed with Herbie Hancock, and again teamed up with the jazz artist at a White House State dinner before President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao. This year he collaborated with Coca-Cola at the Olympics; Queen Elizabeth II at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert; Latitude, an annual bohemian cultural festival in Suffolk, England; and Dom Pérignon at the Château de Versailles in Paris, in September 2012. Last summer the BBC dedicated a 90-minute documentary to the pianist as part of its Imagine series hosted by Alan Yentob, again pressing the pianist into the minds of the British public.

He recently collaborated with dubstep dancer and internet sensation, Marquese “Nonstop” Scott. In the short video, Lang Lang plays Chopin’s Ocean, Etude Op 25 No 12 as Scott dances in his trademark gravity-defying style. Scott’s low budget grainy YouTube dance video remix of Foster The People’s Pumped Up Kicks, uploaded in September 2011, has so far received more than 77.5 million views. In its first week alone, he attracted five million views and this led to an appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

In contrast, the two minute 54 second video of Ocean 12 (promoting Lang Lang’s The Chopin Album), which was uploaded a few months ago, has attracted 24,000 views. Lang Lang’s video is slicker and more in line with a pop video than a home-made sensation. Set in a vast warehouse, Lang Lang’s video tries to replicate the sexiness of the urban junky, but the resulting film is too clean. Marquese “Nonstop” Scott’s slow-motion moves to Chopin are balletic and yet lack the raw authenticity that made his own videos an internet sensation.

‘I don’t think I should do crossover projects,’ Lang Lang says, somewhat ironically. ‘You can do some collaborations, one track or two, but I much prefer to have real classical music content than changing it to some sort of weird stuff. I believe in pure music. You need personality, the connection, the communication and the presentation, yes, in a way, but we don’t need to change our note to make the presentation.’ Does he feel that presenters and promoters should do more to aid musicians to attract wider audiences? ‘I don’t think we need to change anything as a performer,’ he says, seemingly contradicting his own actions. ‘It’s just the way people don’t know about it and the way we haven’t figured out the best way to promote it.

Lang Lang claims he never wanted to be just a pianist: ‘From the very beginning, I always wanted to do more than performing; we need to take more responsibilities, we can’t always be staying in our little world and approach and we need to do much more outreach programmes for many people, not just the mainstay audience in Europe and the States.’

Lang Lang has certainly proved himself to be more than an ebullient performer, even if some critics accuse him of style over substance. One of the 250 Young Global Leaders selected by the World Economic Forum, the pianist received the 2010 Crystal Award in Davos. In May 2011, Lang Lang received an honorary doctorate of music from The Prince of Wales at the Royal College of Music, and received his second honorary doctorate in Musical Arts at the Manhattan School of Music in May 2012. In December 2011, he was honoured the highest prize awarded by the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China. In August 2012, he received the highest German civilian honour, the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, in recognition of his distinguished services to music.

The pianist has been on stage since he was five, does he ever worry about burnout? Isn’t he feeling just a little bit exhausted? ‘I’m not exhausted, I’m still having a good life and drinking a nice cup of tea.’ He raises his cup, takes a sip and smiles. ‘I’m finding time to date, I always try to find time to date, it’s working well I would say – but of course it’s too early for me, I think, to have a married life. That would still take a few years to think about, though I see myself having kids someday for sure.’ Would his life shift down a gear then? ‘I’d slow down a little bit, but not much,’ he says with a grin.