China's Lang Lang hopes to snap up a Grammy

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

Bobby Yip/Reuters
Lang Lang: The pianist is a big hit in the classical music world.

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.

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.

Part of the problem, says Martin Kettle, classical music critic for The Guardian in London, is that "critics don't like being bounced into huge approval of the latest person to come off the PR conveyor belt ... and there's been an awful lot of that in the past 20 years."

The young pianist's agents and record company work overtime to promote him: they are obviously delighted to have found a pianist who excites new and younger audiences, breathing fresh life into a culture of classical music that is often seen as out of tune with modern times.

Certainly, ordinary concertgoers seem not to heed the doubts harbored by the cognoscenti: indeed the very aspects that they disdain – the pianist's uninhibited exuberance, his heart-on-the-sleeve emotion – are the same qualities that endear Lang Lang to his millions of fans.

The 'Tiger Woods' of classical music

He fills concert halls and sells recordings like few other classical musicians. His appearance at last year's Salzburg Festival sold out in 20 minutes, and his recording of Chinese music two years ago went triple platinum in his home country, where he is a household name.

Lang Lang's appeal to a new generation, and to nonclassical music lovers ("He is the Tiger Woods of the classical music scene," says Mr. Graffman), has earned him commercial endorsement deals. Lang Lang now helps promote Audi cars, Mont Blanc pens, and Adidas sneakers among other consumer goodies.

Adidas will start selling a Lang Lang line of sneakers next May, and the pianist is already wearing them. They are firm soled, black with gold stripes, and emblazoned (also in gold) with Lang Lang's name along the side.

He takes real pleasure in those shoes, showing them off eagerly to a visitor, as if he cannot quite believe the good fortune that has taken him from a modest home in northern China to the stages of the world's most storied concert halls.

Success does not seem to have gone to his head, though. His old teacher, Graffman, was touched to get a New Year phone call from Lang Lang on the other side of the world a few weeks ago, and in conversation the pianist is modest, quick to laugh, and forbearing toward even his harshest critics.

"To be criticized is a great thing, because it means people are paying a lot of attention," he says. "Even the most critical ones care about my development. I think their thoughts are good; they hope I can improve. They don't want to see a star get big very fast and finish very fast."

"I've thrilled to him, and I've encouraged my kids to go and hear him," says Mr. Kettle, the Guardian critic. "But there have been other potentially great young pianists whose technique was way in advance of their interpretive maturity and they burned out, got disillusioned, or were cast aside by their record companies. Let's hope that doesn't happen to him."

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