I just got back from Steinway Hall, down the street from Carnegie Hall, where the pianist Lang Lang made a lunchtime appearance while in town for a free Central Park concert with the New York Philharmonic.
The ever-bouncy Lang Lang arrived in jeans, black-and-white jersey, and trademarked spiky hair about 20 minutes late, straight from a Philharmonic rehearsal. People crammed into the small main rotunda, with its beautiful Italian crystal and Greek marble, built in 1925 by the Warren and Wetmore firm, the same folks who built Grand Central Station. The rotunda holds about 300 people, many of whom were holding cell phones in the air to take Lang Lang’s photo as he entered. There were young students (many of them Asian) accompanied by their parents, plus the usual New Yorkers who show up at these sorts of things, which is to say veteran arts-lovers, office workers on lunch break, and music-industry people.
By the standards of the classical-music world, Lang Lang is a superstar. He’s appeared in just about all the major media outlets, he has the backing of a major record label, and has managed to stay in the spotlight by ruffling a few feathers with his unorthodox demeanor and sometimes overheated, bombastic interpretations of music. At the ripe old age of 26, he has just published an autobiography, where he writes about the hothouse environment of growing up as a product of China’s “one child” policy years, with intense pressure from his father to succeed as a musician. His father quit his job when he was nine years old to accompany his only son to Beijing, so he could study with the best teachers. Lang Lang talked about classical music’s “image problem,” and he talked about how relatively new classical music is in China, many of whom are just hearing works by Mahler and Wagner for the first time. Lang Lang pointed out that today there are 35 million piano students in China, an astonishing figure. He joked a lot, and did a wicked imitation (spoken) of his teacher Gary Graffman. He mentioned that he will be at the Olympics next month as a TV correspondent. On a Steinway piano known as the Ellipse (to be auction on his Web site from July 17th-July 31st with net proceeds to be donated to the American Red Cross China Earthquake Fund), he played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, whipping through its pyrotechnics with frightening ease. This is the piece he says inspired him to want to play the piano as a small child, when he heard it during the famous Tom & Jerry episode on TV. All this was recorded for broadcast on WQXR, during an interview with Elliott Forrest.
After his interview with Elliott Forrest and his Liszt performance, Lang Lang stayed to sign books and CDs, and I went back out to 57th Street, where I noticed humongous crowds at the Avenue of the Americas. Their numbers made the few hundred folks at the Lang Lang event seem like nothing. There were police barriers, television cameras, children on parents’ shoulders, police officers everywhere, and the avenue was blocked off. When I asked a spectator what was happening, she looked at me like I was crazy.
“The All-Star Game,” she said.
Right—tonight is the All Star Game at Yankee Stadium, and this was the pre-game parade. Baseball, the national pastime, and all that. Yes, classical music really is a small, small world.
And yet in China you have 35 million kids who want to be pianists. Gives you something to think about.
Image: Lang Lang performs Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Music Director Designate Alan Gilbert (also shown) in Central Park on July 15, 2008. The Steinway concert grand piano on which he performed will be auctioned on www.langlang.com with net proceeds going to the American Red Cross China Earthquake Relief Fund. Photo by Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic.