“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice. ”
International piano sensation Lang Lang grew up on a Chinese air force base where his father played in the military band. He doesn't remember much about the airplanes there, but he does recall watching American television cartoons, with their animation often mated to classical music, and credits them for his desire to learn piano. He began formal lessons at age three and two years later was already winning recital awards.
By age 14, he was the featured soloist with the China National Symphony and, a year later, he came to America to continue his training at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute. Soon Lang Lang was playing concerts internationally to rave reviews. By 19, he had sold out Carnegie Hall.
Last year, the London Evening Standard's Norman Lebrecht wrote that Lang Lang was "more famous in many parts of the world than the Beatles." National Public Radio, meanwhile, gushed, "Lang Lang has conquered the classical world with dazzling technique and charisma."
Indeed, it appears that his career is sprouting faster than Chinese capitalism and that Lang Lang-who performs at least 130 concerts a year-is becoming the Van Cliburn of his age. He has played at the opening of major international events, including the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics; the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; and the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Oslo, Norway. He has a multimillion-dollar recording contract with Sony, and Bombardier business jets recently named him a brand ambassador.
He's firmly infused in the popular culture. He's been on 60 Minutes and Oprah. Last year Time magazine named him one of the "100 Most Influential People In The World." His bestselling 2008 biography, Journey of a Thousand Miles, has been translated into eight languages. A children's version of the book, called Playing with Flying Keys, has helped to create a global tsunami of kids lining up to take piano lessons. There is even a name for this. It's called the "Lang Lang Effect." All rather heady stuff for a guy who's just 28.
Not everyone loves him, though. A handful of music critics who weren't fond of his passionate style of play gave him the name "Bang Bang," doing everything short of calling him the reincarnation of Liberace in a turtleneck.
Such criticism doesn't seem to bother Lang Lang, a highly approachable and humble musician who still gives at least some of the credit for his success to the "lucky break" he got 11 years ago, when he filled in at the last minute for Andre Watts at a concert near Chicago. Since that night, it's been a wild ride, and Lang Lang appears to be enjoying every minute of it.
What has been your favorite trip so far in a private jet?
I usually travel with my mother and my management team. But one time I had a party on a Global Express with some friends on a flight within China. We had champagne and watched movies. That was fun.
How does flying privately compare with airline travel for you?
On a private jet you have everything. You have all kinds of food and drinks and you are not wasting time on a security line. When you sit on a commercial plane it is like very hard practice. When you are on a private jet it is like, "Wow—life is great."
Where do you live most of the time?
Hard to say really. It is hotel rooms and airplanes.
What did it feel like to play at the Beijing Olympics, knowing that more than a billion people might be watching you?
It was the experience of a lifetime but not the most exciting moment of my life. When you have that one huge lucky break, that is even more exciting, because [before it] you were a nobody.
What was your "huge lucky break"?
It was in the summer of 1999 when I was the substitute for Andre Watts at the Ravinia Festival north of Chicago. It was not a normal concert. It was called the "Concert of the Century" with the Chicago Symphony and the iconic Isaac Stern [the renowned violinist who died in 2001]. He actually introduced me to the audience. That was absolutely my lucky break.
You've said television cartoons inspired you to play piano. Do you still watch cartoons?
Yes. I love South Park, Family Guy and The Simpsons.
In your book, you relate a story of how your father ordered you to kill yourself after you failed an audition when you were nine. How did that episode affect your life?
It was a real crazy moment and very painful for a long time. But my father has changed a lot over the years and now we are good friends, so it's OK.
What is the one favorite piece of music you play?
Really hard to say. It is like asking, "What is your favorite food?" At different times you like different foods. Today it is Mozart because that is what I am playing tomorrow night. But next week I am playing something else. I am always changing.
Who are some of the other musicians you listen to?
I like Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli and Leonard Bernstein, but I also like popular musicians like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera.
One writer said you were more famous than the Beatles. Do you think you are?
Of course not. The Beatles are amazing and I had a great opportunity to plan an event with Paul McCartney. I had met him the first time at the London Bridge awards and he was really funny. He said, "You are a classical musician and I am also classic: classic rock."
Have you always played with a lot of physical intensity?
I always try to play very precise and very passionate. Every concert, for me and for the audience, is a life experience.
You've played with a wide variety of artists. Are you tempted to pursue other genres more often?
Sure. Next year I would like to do something totally different, maybe "Summertime" [the jazz standard from George Gershwin's Porgy & Bess], and record an album with many kinds of artists, including jazz and country. I haven't figured it out yet, but certainly the jazz will be incredible. Last year I had a duets tour with Herbie Hancock and we played seven cities in the U.S. and 10 in Europe. I learned a lot from him on how to improvise and develop an instinct for jazz harmony.
Do you have any hobbies?
Movies are my biggest hobby. I am actually now on my way to Sony Pictures Studios, where some friends are going to show me around.
I love sports. Last night I had the great privilege to perform in Houston, where my countryman, Yao Ming, plays for the Houston Rockets [NBA basketball team]. I had a really nice dinner with him and his wife and parents. There were so many things that we had in common, not only because we are both Chinese, but also because so many things are similar growing up as a musician or as an athlete. It was really cool. I gain a lot of inspiration watching NBA games or European soccer championships.
How many hours a day do you practice?
It used to be seven hours and now it is only two, sometimes even less because of my traveling. But with the Bombardier jets I can practice more because I save a lot of travel time.
You've already accomplished much in your life. What is your next big goal?
I started the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, whose aim is to help young people learn music by providing scholarships. I have one goal and it is to help support the next generation of musicians and help schools create after-school music classes. I want to work with teachers and volunteers to help create a healthier environment for music studies, because we are in very difficult times, especially in the United States, with schools cutting budgets. The very first thing they do is to cut art and music. This is very unhealthy.
You talk a lot about the need to be number one. What does being number one mean to you?
It means to do your best. It is not really a number, it is a commitment, your discipline, your will and your goal. If you are true to yourself, you will get the best out of yourself. That is my understanding of number one.
NAME: Lang Lang
OCCUPATION: Classical pianist
TRANSPORTATION: Private jets supplied by Bombardier. Favorites are Global Express XRS and Learjet 60XR.
PERSONAL: Lives primarily in New York City. Single. Enjoys watching movies and professional sports.