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China's Lang Lang hopes to snap up a Grammy

The flamboyant young pianist has been called the 'Tiger Woods' of classical music.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 2008

Lang Lang: The pianist is a big hit in the classical music world.

Bobby Yip/Reuters



Spread-eagle across the cover of his latest CD in a pair of outrageously checked trousers, his face – under a thatch of spiky gelled hair – gazing into the sky, Lang Lang is clearly not your average classical piano virtuoso.

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The flamboyant young Chinese soloist is the hottest sensation on the classical music scene and he does not mind who knows it. But after years of delighting audiences and infuriating critics, Lang Lang is keen to reveal the musician behind the showman.

At the Grammy awards on Sunday, he will play "Rhapsody in Blue" with jazzman Herbie Hancock. His main hope, though, is that he will pick up a Grammy for his new recording of Beethoven's First and Fourth Piano Concertos.

"This CD helps me a lot," says Lang Lang (whose name means "clear, resonant, and loud" in Chinese). "People who are questioning my musicianship listen and they start looking at me as a different person."

Lang Lang has endured more than his fair share of vicious criticism since he first astonished an international audience with his talent and charisma in 1999.

A review in The Times of London last November, accusing him of "grossly self-indulgent travesties" of Schumann and Lizst, was not atypical of the unkind things professional critics have said about him. To read others you would think he was nothing but a tasteless exhibitionist.

Some music critics object to his extreme interpretations of particular pieces; others are allergic to his personal style – the way he sometimes gesticulates and wriggles and conducts himself with his free hand, with his eyes closed and an ecstatic smile on his lips.

Proud of his pizazz

Lang Lang is unrepentant. "This is who I am," he says simply. "I started playing like that when I was a kid. That's my way, my signature, and I'm very proud of it."

Gary Graffman, the great American pianist who was Lang Lang's teacher at the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia, says that his former student's physicality "is disturbing. I would go round behind him and hold his shoulders, so that he wouldn't move around so much," he recalls. "But when you closed your eyes, the music was there."

That music has hardly escaped notice. Lang Lang has drawn as many admiring plaudits as he has brickbats. Paris critic Christian Merlin found him "a true and beautiful artist at the height of youth and invention, capable of a thousand pleasing and delicate nuances" last November when he played Beethoven's 1st Piano Concerto. And the world's top conductors love to work with him: once every two months, for example, Lang Lang goes into retreat for a week with Daniel Barenboim, who lives in Berlin.