Pianist mixes classical music with pop culture

One of the highlights of Friday’s Opening Ceremony promises to be Lang Lang, who combines classical keyboard work with pop-culture showmanship, engendering as much affection and esteem among the Chinese as basketball legend Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang.

The vivacious 26-year-old — known for playing a red Steinway in his trademark Versace jacket and plain T-shirt — is about as popular as a classical musician can get. And his female fans are legion.

Lang, who records for Deutsche Grammaphon, has famously been filmed playing Chopin using an orange. With daring references to kung fu and videogames peppering his discussions of the great composers, Lang has made classical music accessible to many in China, which has some 30 million piano students.

“I just love to perform, I love the light, I love the time when I’m onstage, and I feel comfortable. I feel probably better than I do at home,” he said in a recent TV interview.

Lang’s profile is rising on the world stage, and he seems to suffer none of the inherent shyness that plagues other big Chinese names when they work abroad. (His excellent English probably helps.) This year he performed with Herbie Hancock at the Grammy Awards, and he recently received one of the ultimate pop culture status symbols from Adidas: his signature on an athletic shoe.

Lang hails from the northeastern city of Shenyang, a steel town famous for building tanks and trains. He started playing the piano at age 3 after being inspired by an unlikely musical star.

“When I was 2 years old, I was watching ‘Tom and Jerry,’ and the cat was playing Liszt. Tom was my first teacher,” he said.

At age 5, he won the main Shenyang piano competition and gave his first public recital. He entered Beijing’s prestigious Central Music Conservatory at age 9, dazzling his teachers. By the time he was a preteen, Lang was playing Chopin’s Etudes at the Beijing Concert Hall.

His father, Lang Guoren, a musician who was forced to become a police officer during the Cultural Revolution, was the textbook driving force in his son’s life, pushing him to become a world-class pianist. Lang eventually left China with his parents when he was 15, after he was accepted as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Two years later, Lang got his first big break when he performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

His playing style is unquestionably odd. Lang’s technical skills have won plaudits from the great names of classical music, including his mentor Daniel Barenboim, whom he visits for master classes every year in Berlin.

Not everyone is a fan. Anthony Tommasini, music critic for the New York Times, described Lang’s playing as “incoherent” and “hammy,” although he has been more positive on Lang of late.

Lang recently won domestic plaudits for his work to help the victims of the Sichuan earthquake in May, and he will auction a red Steinway to raise money for that cause.

Because of his star power, Lang is sure to be a central feature of Friday’s Opening Ceremony, orchestrated by helmer Zhang Yimou. It’s a fair bet that he will play the crowd-pleasing “Yellow River Concerto.” Given the global platform of the Olympics, his perf is likely to be anything but understated.

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