Lang Lang Is Back: A Piano Superstar Grows Up
Returning after a career-threatening injury, the world’s most famous classical pianist is rethinking his approach to music.
- July 24, 2019
It was late one afternoon this spring, and Madison Square Garden’s 19,000 seats were empty as Billy Joel and Lang Lang began jamming onstage.
Pop’s piano man had invited the superstar classical pianist to make a guest appearance at his sold-out April show at the Garden, and they were rehearsing a duet of Mr. Joel’s “Root Beer Rag” during the soundcheck, taking it from fast to blisteringly fast.
Then they started goofing around. Suddenly they were trading riffs from Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. They teamed up on some Bach. Finally, with Mr. Joel’s band looking on in surprise, the two launched into the thunderous opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
It was as good a sign as any that Mr. Lang — the world’s most famous, and bankable, concert pianist — still has his chops, after a career-threatening injury to his left arm in 2017 sidelined him for over a year.
After rebuilding his strength and technique, he is returning in earnest this fall. He is again appearing with the world’s leading orchestras. He is again promoting a new album — his first in several years — as few other classical musicians can, with appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Good Morning America.” And he is again arousing the suspicion, if not outright hostility, of the classical field by applying lessons from the pop world to his career, trying to navigate a delicate balance between popularization and artistic integrity.
But he insists he is not the same man, or musician. Mr. Lang — who long maintained that his greatest fear was an injury that would leave him unable to play the piano, and therefore, as he once put it, “render me useless for life” — spent his forced sabbatical taking stock.
“I used the time,” Mr. Lang said in an interview, “to rethink everything I do.”
His health crisis hit at a pivotal moment. Mr. Lang, who recently turned 37, is at an age when he must navigate the next leg of the journey from wunderkind to mature — even veteran — artist. Such transitions are not easy, noted the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, a mentor of Mr. Lang’s and a former child prodigy himself.
“Either the child goes and the prodigy remains,’’ Mr. Barenboim said, “or the prodigy goes and the child remains.”
That Mr. Lang has taken the first course is evident to the conductor Franz Welser-Möst, the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, who has known the pianist since Mr. Lang was a teenager.
“We all go through phases, and I think there was a time when success sort of started to have a negative influence on him,” Mr. Welser-Möst said. “Then he was out of the business for health reasons for quite some time, which was a shock for him. Since then he has changed as a musician. Before he would sort of go for the show-off, virtuoso stuff — he was looking in the music for the virtuosic side of a lot of these pieces. Now he has matured. A lot.”Image“I’m going back to basics more,” Mr. Lang said of his new approach to practicing. “It’s healthier.”CreditGus Powell for The New York Times
His pounding bit of soundcheck Tchaikovsky with Mr. Joel aside, Mr. Lang is taking a break from the crowd-pleasing Romantic war horses he made his name with. Critics sometimes complained that those pieces brought out a hammy side to his playing; now he is winning praise with a reduced schedule of more refined works by Mozart and Beethoven. Next season he will concentrate on Bach. In June, he married Gina Alice Redlinger, a pianist he met in Berlinafter one of his concerts a few years ago, and is thinking about starting a family.
“We went through some difficult times already,” he said, adding that Ms. Redlinger had been a support when he was injured. “And she helped me along.”
After spending more than half his life as a touring musician, he has decided to give fewer concerts. He plans to cut back to 70 or 80 a year, down from the 130 or so he had been doing before his injury — because he wants more time to, well, live his life, as well as to devote himself to educational projects.
“I need those extra days, because otherwise you can’t really focus on everything you do,” he said.
It’s not that the old Lang Lang — which is to say the young, flamboyant Lang Lang — has disappeared completely.
Few other classical soloists, after all, make cameos at Billy Joel concerts. Who else could get Steinway to name a new line of grand pianos for him this year, the way guitar makers have long named instruments for stars like Eric Clapton and Les Paul? Or work with the director Ron Howard, who is developing a biopic based on Mr. Lang’s rags-to-riches upbringing in China? Or hold his wedding at Versailles with a party Marie Antoinette might have envied, and several columns’ worth of boldfaced names as guests?
But much has changed — down to his practice routine.
Mr. Lang attributed his injury to overwork: He had been touring with several demanding pieces as he taught himself Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. Mr. Lang wound up with tendinitis, as dangerous for a pianist as it is for a pitcher. It got bad enough that in April 2017, he decided to cancel a few months of concerts to recover; in the end, he took more than a year off.
These days, he is more careful. “I’m going back to basics more,” he said of his new approach to practicing, which he does for an hour each morning and evening. “It’s healthier.”ImageMr. Lang with students from First Avenue School in Newark, where the Lang Lang International Music Foundation has opened a new piano lab.CreditGus Powell for The New York Times.
On a recent morning in midtown Manhattan, he strode into a studio and carefully went through major and minor scales in every key. But now he stopped from time to time to stretch, pausing to slowly rotate his head over his shoulders, or to cross his arms over one another in front of his chest.
“I want to build more muscles,” he said, “but without hurting.”
A black S.U.V. eventually picked him up to take him to Newark for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new piano lab that the Lang Lang International Music Foundation had donated to First Avenue School — which has also received several dozen Roland digital pianos, along with Lang Lang Piano Method instruction books — as part of the foundation’s multimillion dollar commitment to expanding access to music education in underserved communities.
As the car snaked through traffic, he spoke about his new album, “Piano Book,” his first release since he returned to the Deutsche Grammophon label — in part to take advantage of the better promotional opportunities available from being part of the Universal Music Group juggernaut — after several years with Sony Classical.
His choice of repertoire on the album is almost a taunt to those who have found his artistic choices overly safe: “Piano Book” is a collection of short, mostly greatest-hits pieces, like Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
“A lot of people were like: ‘Are you serious? You’re playing ‘Fur Elise?’” Mr. Lang said.
But, he added, he recorded them because, quite simply, he likes them — and because, even though such chestnuts are played by students all over the world, it is not always easy to find quality recordings.
The album was also engineered for music’s streaming age. Since big streaming services generate revenue each time a track is played, they reward albums with many short tracks over those with fewer long ones, as with most symphonies and concertos. Within four months of its release in March, Mr. Lang’s “Für Elise” recording had been streamed 5.1 million times on Spotify.
Mr. Lang was born in 1982 on a military barracks in Shenyang, China, where his father, who played the erhu, a bowed Chinese instrument, had a job as an Air Force musician. His parents, whose grander artistic dreams were thwarted by the Cultural Revolution, when classical music was all but banned, got him a piano when he was still a toddler, and he often cites a Tom and Jerry cartoon, “The Cat Concerto,” in which cat and mouse fight through Tom’s attempt to perform Liszt, as an early influence.
But his parents struggled to pay for his musical education. When Mr. Lang was 9, his father left his job — he was a police officer by then — and moved with him to Beijing so that Mr. Lang could study piano more seriously. His mother stayed behind in Shenyang and worked so she could send them $150 a month, which they had to stretch to pay for rent, lessons and food.
His father pushed him relentlessly, Mr. Lang wrote in his 2008 memoir, “Journey of a Thousand Miles” — and even urged Mr. Lang to kill himself after he was dropped by his first teacher in Beijing. “Die now rather than live in shame,” Mr. Lang recalled his father saying. Mr. Lang’s father thrust a bottle of pills at him and told him to swallow them all before ordering him to jump off their balcony.
Mr. Lang wrote that he almost gave up the piano then and there — punching the wall to hurt his hands, and giving up playing for months. But the moment of madness passed; father and son reconciled; and Mr. Lang returned to the piano, going on to study at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and eventually earn a place at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with its director, Gary Graffman.
“Technically, he was incredible,” Mr. Graffman recalled of Mr. Lang’s audition. “He had this communication thing. Yes, his hands went up to the ceiling and that sort of thing, but even if you closed your eyes, there was really this communication.”
When he was 17, his big break arrived as he filled in at the last minute for André Watts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was an overnight sensation.
His career took off just as China was emerging as a powerhouse of classical music: an important new market for recordings, a required stop on orchestra tours, and a major source of new artists.
But as the new generation of Asian musicians began to make inroads, they sometimes faced bias. In comedy sketches, Yuja Wang, another star pianist from China, has mocked the trope that Asian players have strong technique but play like soulless automatons. Mr. Lang said that his emotional, expressive style may have been in part a reaction to the stereotypes.
“They were saying that Asians were kind of cold, that they were reserved,” he recalled. “From the very beginning, I always tried to do more.”
He did. And with dazzling technique, exuberant showmanship, canny marketing — and by making the most of opportunities such as playing at the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — he became a superstar. Like other classical artists, he endorsed a Swiss watch. Far more unusual? He had a line from Adidas named for him, and played with Metallica.
But prominent critics, many of whom had initially been impressed by his talent, began regularly decrying what they perceived as tastelessness in his playing. Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic of The New York Times, skewered Mr. Lang’s 2003 Carnegie Hall recital, writing that his playing was “often incoherent, self-indulgent and slam-bang crass.” In 2015, John Allison complained in The Telegraph that Mr. Lang played Chopin with “a vulgarity seldom, if ever, heard on the London concert platform.”
But audiences — and, as important, leading maestros — continued to be impressed. Mr. Welser-Möst recalled that when Mr. Lang came to Cleveland several years ago to play Bartok’s demanding Second Piano Concerto, the pianist asked him for help with some Mozart.
Mr. Welser-Möst said that he responded by testing Mr. Lang, saying that he would coach him in Mozart sonatas if Mr. Lang would come to the stage an hour and a half before the Bartok concert.
“And he was there,” Mr. Welser-Möst said. “That shows what kind of discipline he has. He was already an enormous star. I don’t know many people who would have that kind of humility.”
Mr. Lang has tried to balance that humility and curiosity with Metallica, Mr. Joel and “Für Elise.” It’s not always easy. Classical music may lament its increasing marginalization from the broader culture, but it is often also wary of popularizing efforts. Even Mr. Lang admitted to occasional doubts.
“I really want to carry classical music into some new areas,” he said. “But sometimes I think, maybe it’s too far? Maybe I should pull back a little bit?”
The violinist Itzhak Perlman — whom Mr. Lang cited as an inspiration for his balance of populism and artistry, along with Luciano Pavarotti and Yo-Yo Ma — said that he always thought hard when deciding to dip his toe in something outside the core repertoire, like klezmer.
“Some people will say, ‘That’s cute,’ and some people will say, ‘Oh, how can you do something like that, you’re a classical musician,’” Mr. Perlman said. “Personally, I always remember what my day job is.”
And so, a few weeks after his cameo at the Garden, Mr. Lang was back at his day job, playing Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden, Germany, with the Berlin Philharmonic and its incoming chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko. He said that he and Mr. Petrenko spent nearly two hours going over the piece together “almost note by note.”
Shortly after, in May, he played the same work in Los Angeles with Gustavo Dudamel. There, it was part of a cycle of Beethoven’s five piano concertos; Mr. Lang was originally scheduled for the full cycle, but withdrew from all but the Second as his recovery continued.
Any doubts those cancellations raised about his abilities were dispelled by his nuanced, delicate performance. Mark Swed, the classical music critic of The Los Angeles Times, wrote in his review that it was “something people may well be talking about for years.”
“This was not so much Lang Lang returning,” he added, “as Lang Lang arriving.”
Mr. Lang said he was already making plans to return to the Romantic repertoire. But first he is spending a season focused onBach’s “Goldberg” Variations, one of the most intellectually demanding, austerely unfussy works in the canon — an immersion planned before he got hurt.
And he has other dreams, beyond big-statement virtuosity: to accompany a singer in Schubert’s song cycle of heartache, “Winterreise”; to revisit Brahms; to play new music if he can find the right fit; and perhaps to try and compose something himself.
“Maybe I will start with some children’s songs,” he said, laughing. “Easier! Safer!”
For now, though, Mr. Lang is happy just to be playing again. He said that he had been frightened right up to the opening bars of his comeback concert last year at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in the Berkshires.
“It was really a little weird to play the first eight bars — the most weird eight bars in my life,” he said. “I was like, Am I going forward? And then after eight bars, it was: Let’s go!”
Michael Cooper covers classical music and dance. He was previously a national correspondent; a political reporter covering presidential campaigns; and a metro reporter covering the police, City Hall and Albany. @coopnytimes • Facebook