Lang Lang: So good, they named him twice . . . Lang Lang's precocious talent has lived up to his name.
Independent (London) / 05. January 2007
He's already introduced many masterpieces from the Western classical tradition to audiences in China. With "Dragon Songs," Lang Lang's cultural exchange comes full circle as he steps up his efforts to share Chinese traditional music with the Western world.
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Minnesota Public Radio / 02. January 2007
Lang displays surprising delicacy in the solo selections, which often look back to the filigreed embroidery of Chopin or Debussy.
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Time Out (Chicago) / 11. January 2007
While his previous CDs have been characterized by formidable technique propelled by remarkable energy and a palpable passion for music-making, "Dragon Songs" reveals the sensitivity for musical line that truly foretells a lifelong career.
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Boston Herald / 19. January 2007
. . . the pianist spins off a series of impressionistic solo portraits. Some, like He Luting's wry "The Cowherd's Flute" or Lü Wencheng's Debussy-inflected "Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake," run to gentle, flowing lyricism. Others ¿ Du Mingxin's "Straw Hat Dance" and Zhu Jianer's "Happy Times" ¿ have a whirring flair that seems almost Castilian.
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Steven Winn ,
San Francisco Chronicle / 21. January 2007
The 24-year-old pianist combines almost limitless talent with rare charisma.
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Kyle MacMillan ,
The Denver Post / 14. February 2007
He¿s passionate about his music and equally so about China, and it shows in his playing . . . The DVD culminates with a performance of of the "Yellow River" which is a brilliant fusion of east and west.
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Classic FM (London) / 01. May 2007
. . . he is not just a superstar performer, but also a symbol of an ambitious nation.
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BBC Music Magazine (London) / 01. May 2007
Lang Lang ist der moderne Piano-Star schlechthin. Er wandelt auf den Pfaden von Horowitz, ohne dessen virtuose Kopie zu werden.
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Jens Peter Launert,
Tonart (Munich) / 17. November 2006
“Just like fairytales for me"
"Dragon Songs" - Lang Lang plays melodies from China
Renowned throughout the world for his passionately committed performances of Western classical masterpieces, Lang Lang now returns to his Eastern roots withthis ground-breaking album of Chinese music recorded in Beijing. Dragon Songs is also the title of a film documenting the pianist's recent tour of China and the recording of this CD.
After firmly establishing himself as a classical soloist, Lang Lang determined to make his rich and colourful Chinese musical heritage more widely known:
“I grew up in a family of musicians - my father is an erhu (two-string violin) player, and my grandfather played the Chinese flute and a Chinese lute called the pipa. Whenever my relatives got together, we would have family concerts, with me at the piano - I tried playing the Chinese violin, but I was hopeless! I did a lot of mixing of traditions when I was a kid, and that's what I've tried to do on this album. I hope it will open a door to Chinese culture and music for my audience. These melodies are heard all over China: I've known them since I was a baby. My mother would sing them, my father would play them. They were like fairytales for me."
Lang Lang performs piano transcriptions of the Chinese songs, joined by traditional instruments including the pipa, the guanzi (double-reed pipe) and the guzheng (zither). “I like using the familiar sound of the piano to introduce these pieces to the world. The sound of Chinese music may be a little hard for some European ears to take in at first, but adding the piano to a pipa or guanzi makes it easier."
Lang Lang has brought together master musicians from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, where he studied for five years from the age of nine. “We recorded some of the music in the auditorium. It made me so nervous because that was where I took all my piano exams. Before we started, I said to myself 'No wrong notes!'" Not only are there no wrong notes, Lang Lang has just been appointed professor at his alma mater. While in Beijing, he also became the first solo pianist to perform in the Great Hall of the People - in the Forbidden City - before an audience of 8000.
The most substantial composition on Dragon Songs is the Yellow River Concerto, based on a stirring choral cantata composed by Xian Xinghai in 1939, during the Japanese occupation. Lang Lang says he never fails to be inspired by this piece:
“China went through a terrible nightmare over the last 150 years. Our creative standing in the world was lost, compared to the past, when China was a powerful country. But this piece helped to bring back our energy and self-confidence. It was like a wake-up call from the nightmare, a reminder that we would do great things again. It has a special meaning for me. I get very emotional when I play it because it's part of my culture, and I am really proud of this heritage."
He describes the work stylistically as being “somewhere between Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov's Second ... with echoes of Gershwin in the fourth movement!"
Lang Lang has taken to playing traditional Chinese music as encores at his concerts, and the reaction of the audiences all over the world has been overwhelming. “They really love it and feel a connection with it." The titles of these Dragon Songs - Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake, At Night on the Lake Beneath the Maple Bridge - conjure up the world of ancient Chinese art. Lang Lang describes the first piece as having a French quality, but with a Chinese tune. “I picture the most beautiful, romantic lake in China. The music has a glowing harmony that conjures up the image of a leaf gently floating on that lake. The feeling it produces is like meditation, or t'ai chi: emotional, though not direct."
He says the titles help him think about the music. “I don't necessarily follow the story; sometimes I make up my own. Chinese music leaves a lot of space to imagine things for yourself. And it's very flexible - you can use a lot of rubato, with more freedom than in Western music."
Lang Lang has chosen to conclude the album with the most evocative of all these pieces, At Night on the Lake Beneath the Maple Bridge. “This is about a man who spends the night on a boat, drinking and reflecting on his sad life. When you play it, you can feel his loneliness coming through the music. Sometimes my life as a travelling soloist is quite lonely, and I recognize that feeling. If you close your eyes, you can feel the light breeze off the water, the lights of the little boat, the cold, cold night, and the pain in your heart. This is a perfect example of traditional Chinese music. It contains an inner, emotional world, and has a tremendous sense of space and air. It shows just how closely poetry and music are connected."
Lang Lang is already an ambassador for UNICEF, working on behalf of children all over the world. Does he see himself as an ambassador for Chinese music? “I wouldn't presume to call myself that. But being lucky enough to have a good career gives me the opportunity to introduce these works to the world." The cultural exchange works both ways - Lang Lang has introduced many masterpieces from the Western classical tradition to audiences in China. “I love to the idea of making connections between Chinese culture and the rest of the world," he says. “For this recording I've chosen some wonderful examples of Chinese traditional music. There's so much more, of course, but for a first try, this should do!"
The Piano in Chinese Music
The first European keyboard instruments reached China at the time of the Yuan Dynasty around ad 1300 and were gifts from Western visitors to the Middle Kingdom's all-powerful emperors. Although a number of later emperors learned to play the piano as a token of their universal education and as an expression of the superiority of Chinese culture, harpsichords and pianos initially remained locked away in the treasuries of the aristocracy as no more than Western curios. Only after the First Opium War of 1840-42 did young Chinese men and women take any greater interest in European culture, and it was the piano that provided them with access to Western music. Chinese musicians who returned to China from European and North American universities at the turn of the century could now play the piano themselves as well as teach the instrument and begin to compose at the keyboard.
By the 1930s the piano had finally established itself in China both as a solo instrument and as a means of accompanying songs. In 1934 the Russian composer and pianist Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) organized a competition in Shanghai designed to produce the first “Chinese" piano piece. Eleven Chinese composers submitted a total of 20 works. The winner was He Luting's The Cowherd's Flute, the first piece to combine a Chinese melody with Western counterpoint. In its simple elegance, it has often been imitated, and there is no doubt that it was a milestone on the road to an independent form of Chinese piano music.
The Civil War and the Japanese occupation (1937-45) brought great suffering to China, and yet music offered the nation consolation and encouragement. One example of this is Xian Xinghai's 1939 choral work Great Song of the Yellow River. Composers wrote many patriotic piano pieces based on folk tunes, and by 1950 there were already more than 300 national piano pieces.
Mao Zedong's victory in 1949 initially restored a modicum of peace to the country. Piano music developed under state subsidy, performance techniques evolved, and Chinese pianists took part in international competitions. Piano compositions obeyed the prescripts of the victorious party: genuine and obligatory cheerfulness was combined with freshly acquired virtuosity to produce a new Socialist style of keyboard writing. Inspiration by Chinese folk music was explicitly permitted. Happy Times, for example, is a piano adaptation of a popular orchestral work originally scored for folk instruments, while Dialogue in Song is an arrangement of a folksong from the northern province of Hebei. In much the same way, Straw Hat Dance - adapted from the Chinese ballet Yumeiren (The Mermaid) - brings a breath of Chinese life to a Western genre.
Interestingly enough, the piano was not stigmatized as a reactionary Western instrument by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-69. Rather, it symbolized modernity and progress. For this we may have to thank Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, who is known to have been fond of the instrument. It was she who commissioned the arrangement of Xian Xinghai's “Yellow River" cantata as a piano concerto. The composer himself did not live to see the victory of the Party and was unable, therefore, to depict it in his work, and so the team of composers, pianists and arrangers that worked on the new piece introduced into it the Internationale and the Maoist hymn Dongfanghong (“The East Is Red"). The piano part went beyond anything previously known in Chinese music, and the country's mass media ensured that the work was widely disseminated. Whether as a result of Jiang Qing's media power or because of the sublimity of the original, the Yellow River Concerto continues to be popular with audiences and is in fact one of the best-loved of all Chinese compositions.
With the passage of time, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution gradually faded from memory, tradition was again permitted, and artists slowly regained their former freedoms. This was a period that witnessed the composition of many of the Chinese piano pieces that continue to be played today. Years of interest in traditional melodies, the imitation of folk instruments on the piano and their combination with performance techniques specific to the piano created an indigenous Chinese culture whose products were not arrangements of existing works but original piano pieces in their own right, pieces that have immeasurably enriched the country's concert repertoire. The infinite variety of Chinese folk music guaranteed an abundance of different styles. Among the works produced at this period were Chen Peixun's transcription of the southern Chinese Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake, the Dance of Spring by Sun Yiqiang, who now lives in the United States, and the new version of the Taiwanese film score Spring Wind.
Deng Xiaoping's policy of greater openness in the 1980s and the desire both to share in international culture and to play a part in its development had a more radical impact on Chinese perceptions than any ideology. Students who attended courses in composition at Western universities returned to China with ideas inspired by rock piano, jazz, contemporary music and electronic keyboards. The use of classical Chinese elements became a distinguishing feature of a new sense of national style, with the musical category of “crossover" underpinning the economic merger of Western and Eastern cultures. The piano found a willing accomplice in Chinese folk instruments. Together they enjoy a Night on the Lake Beneath the Maple Bridge and Spring Flowers in the Moonlit Night on the River in Suzhou or they accompany the film composer Zhao Ziping to Qiuci in ancient Tibet.
The piano is thus a symbol of material prosperity and intellectual well-being. Millions of Chinese children play the instrument, and that fact is bound to affect events in the world of the piano during the coming decades - through pianists, composers and, above all, public taste. Whether commercial or elitist, romantic or athletically virtuosic, the future of piano music is already happening today in China. Karsten Gundermann