Lang Lang in conversation with Phillip Huscher
Phillip Huscher: Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto is one of the most familiar and beloved landmarks of Classical music. Do you remember when you first listened to the piece?
Lang Lang: I grew up in China, and China had very close cultural relations with Russia, so you heard lots of Tchaikovsky on the radio. When I was very little - two years old - I heard Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and was really touched by the beautiful melodies and all the exciting passages. Whether you understand Classical music or not, you will always remember a piece like this, because it's so emotional. And so, since my childhood it's been a life dream to perform this concerto.
PH: When did you finally play the Tchaikovsky Concerto for the first time?
LL: When I was nine years old I started to practice it. And then when I was 13 I played it for the first time, in Beijing with the China Youth Orchestra. Of course, this piece started my world career: in the summer of 1999, at Ravinia's gala of the century concert, when I substituted for André Watts. I remember this concert like yesterday.
PH: What do you remember most vividly about that evening?
LL: It was so exciting. Isaac Stern introduced me to the crowd of 13,000 people, and I was so touched by what he said that I think I played better! This was the first time that I had appeared with the Chicago Symphony, one of the greatest orchestras in the world. I had listened to many recordings of the orchestra, with its famous brass section, and they sounded just the same when I heard them play for the first time. It is such a huge, powerful sound and perfect for the Tchaikovsky Concerto. When you hear such strong chords from the brass section or from the woodwinds, you get more energy to play the piece, because it's so exciting.
PH: Mendelssohn's G minor Piano Concerto is another of the cornerstones of the repertoire. When did you first become acquainted with it?
LL: This is the first concerto I ever played - I was seven at the time. This is also a concerto I've always liked, because it's such a lovely piece. And Mendelssohn wrote it when he was around 20, and now I'm 20, so it's a perfect year for this recording! Playing this concerto is also very emotional for me. Two years ago, when I performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra on its 100th birthday tour, we played it in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, which is my second home in China - I studied in Beijing for five years. This was the first time I had played in China since I won the Tchaikovsky competition and went to America to study. To go back to your motherland and play with one of the world's great orchestras is very emotional. So the Mendelssohn now is even deeper in my heart.
PH: Why did you decide to pair Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with the G minor Concerto by Mendelssohn on this recording?
LL: The Tchaikovsky Concerto is such a big Romantic piece and the Mendelssohn is such a small Romantic piece. Normally Tchaikovsky is played with Russian repertoire, or with another big Romantic piece. That inspired me to pair it with something lighter and more delicate, like this Mendelssohn Concerto, which shows another side of the musical experience, and also shows another side of what an artist can do.
PH: Do you approach these two works differently?
LL: Basically, I use a slightly different technique to approach each piece. The double forte, for example, in Tchaikovsky should be much heavier than in the Mendelssohn Concerto. In Mendelssohn, even in fortissimo, you must have a really lovely, sweet sound instead of a strong and hard sound. Mendelssohn was very young when he wrote this concerto; you can tell he thinks the world is so perfect, so beautiful, so peaceful. But in Tchaikovsky, it's not a peaceful world. You are in the real world. And so you see two different worlds, and also you know that age can make people think differently.
PH: Nikolai Rubinstein, whom Tchaikovsky wanted to perform his First Piano Concerto, at first said the piece was simply unplayable. How difficult is it, and how challenging has it been for you to put your own stamp on it?
LL: It's a very hard piece - it's often compared with the Rachmaninov Third Concerto. After you've heard so many people play this piece, it's hard to find yourself. First, you must respect everything that's written in the score. Then you need to play not only with your heart, but with your soul, because this piece has real emotional power - it's like somebody who's had tremendous life experiences - some are super exciting but also some are deeply tragic. At the beginning of the second movement, everything is reborn, you have the most beautiful flute solo, and when the piano comes in, it's like waterfalls - so beautiful and so pure. When I play that movement I just enjoy myself. I'm not on earth - I'm in some heavenly place.
PH: The Chicago Symphony has made recordings with many celebrated pianists, including Artur Schnabel, Artur Rubinstein, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, and Claudio Arrau. How do you feel about joining their company?
LL: It's tremendous. And I'm so honored to be the first Chinese pianist to record with this great orchestra and also with Maestro Barenboim.
PH: What was it like working with Daniel Barenboim, a conductor who is also a celebrated pianist - and has played the Tchaikovsky Concerto himself with this orchestra?
LL: We worked together in Vienna and then in Chicago, and it was very natural. We discussed everything; he knows what I want, and I learned a lot from him. He's such a great pianist. It was a real heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul experience. Partly because I played this concerto with the orchestra at the beginning of my career, we still have that electricity, that kind of connection. I was more surprised by the Mendelssohn, because the orchestra hadn't played it in ten years. But they were superb. It was so light, like a completely different orchestra. And the playing had such intimacy.
PH: Do you think that your playing has changed in any way after working with Mr. Barenboim?
LL: He gave me so much, but he doesn't want me to change. He wants me to know more about what's going on in the music. And how to take risks. He's a fantastic thinker, and I now have a much clearer view of this piece. If you think before you play, then you will get the right sound.
PH: Is it difficult to interest young people today in music by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky - music that dates from the 19th century?
LL: I think it's quite easy. Young people think Classical music is very old. But it's like Shakespeare, or the great novels, or the Bible, which people still read today. Some pop music is only famous for one year. But you can live with this kind of music forever. The Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn Concertos are great ways to get people to listen, because they open the door, even for people who don't know anything about Classical music. These concertos are very hard to play, but if you play well, you can show the human emotion, and then you can really connect with young audiences.
PH: Are you optimistic about the future of this music that you love?
LL: The piano is such a popular instrument around the world; it's like basketball or football. I think Classical music has a very bright future. But of course as performers, we must develop our next generation, and help them to understand. And I'm sure we will have a very bright 21st century, and more centuries to come.
PH: How do you plan to reach a larger audience of young people?
LL: I am hoping to play more in the public schools or for college kids. I'd like to talk to them about how music makes a difference, how music can change your life. Music is a magic thing. It can make everything happen.
(Phillip Huscher is program annotator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)