Lang Lang at Carnegie Hall
Throughout its long and rich history New York's Carnegie Hall and great pianism have been synonymous. One looks back, for instance, on Arthur Rubinstein's 1961 ten-recital marathon, Rudolf Serkin's televised 75th birthday recital, Artur Schnabel's 1935 cycle of the complete Beethoven Sonatas (a tradition Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini and Daniel Barenboim have carried on at the hall in recent seasons). Images of chilly fans waiting overnight in line to buy tickets for Vladimir Horowitz's historic return, or the unprecedented ovation greeting Martha Argerich's first solo appearance in more than 20 years still resonate with music lovers. Many of these occasions, of course, resulted in commercial recordings, including Lang Lang's Carnegie Hall recital debut on 7 November 2003.
We often define a debut in the sense of coming out into society, an introduction, a beginning, a first time. In the context of Carnegie Hall, however, the word takes on a different aspect, referring to a rite of passage or to embarking on the next phase of what one hopes will be a long artistic journey. Yet it's also important to notice from where the artist enters. Although Lang Lang had barely celebrated his 21st birthday at the time of this recording, his portfolio already boasts an impressive array of high-profile, international appearances. The pianist's star began to rise in 1999 when, after auditioning for a solo spot with the Chicago Symphony, he was invited that very week to substitute for an indisposed Andre Watts. History often repeats itself, for 35 years earlier the teenaged Watts had stepped in at the last minute to replace Glenn Gould with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. But, in fact, Lang Lang has rarely been out the public eye since early childhood.
Born in Shenyang in 1982, he began piano lessons at three and gave his first recital two years later. At nine Lang Lang entered the Central Music Conservatory in Beijing, where he studied with Professor Zhao Ping-Guo. As his talent blossomed and repertoire widened, he won first prize in the Fifth Xing Hai Cup Piano Competition in Beijing, first prize and "outstanding artistic performance" in the Fourth International Young Pianists Competition in Germany, and first prize at the Second Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians' Competition held in 1995. That same year he performed all the Chopin Etudes in a single program, and his reputation spread so rapidly that a Chinese-language biography appeared before his 17th birthday.
Given Lang Lang's swift and steady ascent, one can easily imagine the inevitable pressure on this young artist to deliver the goods in the face of increased scrutiny from colleagues and critics. As it happens, he handles the limelight with confidence and consummate grace. After walking onstage, he took plenty of time to greet a full, appreciative house, acknowledging choice seat and upper balcony patrons with equal consideration. He seemed unfazed by the barrage of dangling microphones and strategically placed state-of-the-art video cameras. Such a scenario would have been unthinkable for the microphone-shy Richter back in 1960. By contrast, Lang Lang (whose formative years parallel the information highway coming into its own) is genuinely excited about the DVD release of this concert, and all the "extras" it entails. Like Glenn Gould, he appears to treat the microphone not as an adversary but as a friend and ally. And with time allotted for post-concert retakes and inserts, if necessary, Lang Lang knows that he can play con amore, so to speak, and take chances.
But whereas Gould abandoned concerts for technology's sake, Lang Lang thrives on performing in public, and devotes much time and energy to developing younger audiences for classical music. Looking back on his recent return tour of China, he wrote: "When I give a concert it almost feels like a pop concert. The audience consists mainly of young people. There are a lot of kids, too, and they sometimes speak during the concert. Children find it hard to concentrate over long periods so they move around and talk, but I don't mind. Before the concerts I give press conferences, and after the concerts I do CD signings. They are usually so crowded that I need policemen to protect me. But I like the energy all around me, and the more young people get into classical music, the better."
Either by design or coincidence, Lang Lang's choice of music and mode of presentation both asserted his own 21st-century sensibility and paid homage to his pianistic precedents and mentors. His opening selection, Schumann's "Abegg" Variations, figured in Yevgeny Kissin's 1990 Carnegie debut, while Haydn's C major Sonata appeared twice during Sviatoslav Richter's celebrated five-concert Carnegie debut run in 1960. And it's not insignificant that Lang Lang closed the first half of his program with Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy, which was the very first work his teacher at the Curtis Institute, Gary Graffman, recorded back in 1955. Many pianists in Lang Lang's position might be inclined to declare independence from their teachers, but he disagrees: "If you don't have a teacher, your playing will get strange," he told writer David Patrick Stearns. "I get my own ideas, but that's not enough to be a great musician. I want to get better without getting strange. Mr. Graffman has taught me to bring ideas to the public - to bring the power out from the piano. That's very important. If you don't have the power, you don't have really beautiful music."
Likewise, the encores are emblematic of Lang Lang's past, present and future. He brought out his father, Guo-ren Lang, a professional performer of the erhu, a traditional Chinese bowed instrument, for Two Horses, an erhu/piano duet that bristles with spirited, affectionate interplay. Schumann's evergreen Träumerei, of course, is forever associated with Vladimir Horowitz (Graffman's teacher and Lang Lang's "grandteacher"), but every pianist owns Liszt's Liebestraum no. 3, a work that is either overplayed or taken for granted. "Oh no, not again," I sighed, when Lang Lang launched into the opening measure. Yet within seconds my ears fell sway to the unforced, singing line, gently coaxed inner voices and delicately traced filigree. Moments like these are better experienced than described. Hear for yourself.