Lang Lang | Biography


Lang Lang has long delighted classical audiences and critics alike with performances charged with breathtaking virtuosity, tonal refinement and dramatic intensity. Yet the Chinese pianist’s irresistible artistry, propelled by his passionate belief in music’s transforming power and served by his innate skills as a communicator, has reached far beyond the concert hall. His accomplishments as performer, teacher and philanthropist prompted the New York Times to describe him as “the hottest artist on the classical music planet”. Time magazine, meanwhile, has ranked the pianist among the world’s 100 most influential people, citing him as a symbol of China’s youth and future.
Lang’s pianism evokes an earlier age of virtuoso performance through its emphasis on individuality and imagination. He invites listeners to become fully immersed in a world of potent emotions and lyrical shadings. “Music requires transformation: you share your thoughts with others, using your fingers, your brain,” observed Lang Lang in a 2017 interview with Die Zeit. “The piano alone does nothing; it’s a robot without a soul. There are performances in which the pianist plays everything correctly, yet they leave one cold. And then there are performances that tell you a story. The music comes in waves – it is warm and cold; it has depth and different levels.”
Millions have been inspired by Lang Lang’s example to learn a musical instrument and discover new worlds of self-expression and understanding. The phenomenon, known in China as the “Lang Lang Effect”, has been exported worldwide with help from the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, the charitable organisation which he founded in 2008. For many years he has worked tirelessly to promote education, notably as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and, since 2013, as a UN Messenger of Peace.
Lang Lang achieved household-name status following his appearance at the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing. The following year he performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for US President Barack Obama and, in 2012, took part in the Diamond Jubilee Concert for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. In 2015 he helped build bridges between different musical cultures when he gave an electrifying open-air concert in Havana with legendary Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés as part of the city’s 500th-anniversary celebrations. The following year he performed at the Vatican for Pope Francis and guests at the inaugural Global Conference of Faith and Sport.
Lang Lang has recently spent time reflecting on what first drew him to the piano and on the music that captivated him as a child. Recalling his early lessons he decided to choose a selection of favourite pieces which he has now recorded with the aim of inspiring and motivating piano students of all ages. Piano Book, his first studio album in three years, was released around the world on 29 March 2019 (World Piano Day). The recording presents a collection of the most popular short pieces for piano, Beethoven’s Für Elise, the opening Prelude of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues and Debussy’s Clair de lune among them, works familiar to generations of keyboard students. The tracklist also includes contemporary piano classics by Max Richter and Elena Kats-Chernin, Yann Tiersen’s enchanting Valse d’Amélie, and an evocative arrangement of Ryuichi Sakomoto’s soundtrack theme music for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. The album is also the first to have been released by Deutsche Grammophon since Lang Lang returned to the label in February 2017 after a seven-year absence.
Recording has always played a central role in broadening Lang Lang’s global audience. His debut album for Deutsche Grammophon, released in 2003, presented the first piano concertos of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky in strikingly fresh interpretations made in company with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim. It was followed in 2004 by Lang Lang Live at Carnegie Hall, a double album comprising works by Schumann, Haydn, Schubert, Tan Dun, Chopin and Liszt. “His playing combines fury and finesse, display and poetry,” observed Die Welt in its review of the pianist’s Carnegie Hall recital. Lang Lang’s Deutsche Grammophon discography grew to embrace critically acclaimed accounts of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev; Memory and Dragon Songs, albums devoted respectively to western classical and Chinese compositions known to the pianist since childhood; Beethoven’s First and Fourth Piano Concertos with the Orchestre de Paris and Christoph Eschenbach; Chopin’s two piano concertos with the Wiener Philharmoniker and Zubin Mehta; and an album of Tchaikovsky’s monumental Piano Trio and Rachmaninov’s first Trio élégiaque, made with Vadim Repin and Mischa Maisky. He also recorded original soundtrack scores by Tan Dun (The Banquet) and Alexander Desplat (The Painted Veil) for the Yellow Label.
Lang Lang was born in the city of Shenyang on 14 June 1982. His father encouraged the boy’s instinctive musicality and organised his first piano lessons soon after his third birthday. Two years later Lang Lang won the Shenyang Piano Competition and gave his first public performance.
He enrolled at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music in 1991 to study with Professor Zhao Ping-Guo, whose demanding musical challenges are vividly recalled in Lang’s autobiography Journey of a Thousand Miles. The young musician’s hard work was rewarded in 1993 when he took first prize in the Xinghai National Piano Competition in Beijing. Two years later he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Japan and, in 1997, moved with his father to Philadelphia to study at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music with Gary Graffman, a former child prodigy and one of the world’s finest piano teachers.
Lang Lang’s international career breakthrough came in dramatic fashion in 1999 when he joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for its “Gala of the Century” concert as last-minute replacement soloist in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Grapevine reports of his sensational performance led to a succession of invitations to appear with leading orchestras and at the world’s most prestigious venues. He made his debut at Carnegie Hall, the BBC Proms and Wigmore Hall in 2001, and went on to forge lasting partnerships with conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel and Simon Rattle.
Both Lang Lang’s artistry and his inspirational work in music education and promotion have been recognised with numerous awards and honours. As well as having been presented with the 2010 Crystal Award in Davos and named as one of the 250 Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum, he has also received several honorary doctorates, notably from the Royal College of Music, the Manhattan School of Music and New York University. He has been awarded the highest prize given by the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China, and the highest civilian honours in Germany (Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany) and France (Medal of the Order of Arts and Letters). Grammy-nominated, he is also the recipient of a Classic Brit award and several Echo Klassik prizes, while on 13 February 2019 he was presented with an honorary Victoire de la Musique Classique, becoming the first Chinese musician ever to be given one of these prestigious awards.
Lang Lang has ranged beyond classical music’s traditional borders to collaborate with, among others, fellow pianist Herbie Hancock, Pharrell Williams, Metallica and dubstep dancer Marquese “Nonstop” Scott. The international scope of Lang’s work is clearly reflected in his 2018–19 schedule, which includes tours to China with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Wiener Philharmoniker, performances with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid. On 14 February he launched his new Piano Book album in Paris with a unique concert onboard a riverboat on which he and his guests then travelled along the Seine, taking in some of the city’s best-known landmarks along the way. A busy schedule of performances linked to Piano Book included an arena concert in Beijing, appearances at the Global Awards in London and on TV shows in the US, UK, France and Japan, and a celebration marking World Piano Day. The album has achieved instant success, hitting the classical charts worldwide and, just a week after its release, making the top ten in the German pop charts as well.