Lang Lang Is Back: A Piano Superstar Grows Up

Lang Lang Is Back: A Piano Superstar Grows Up

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.”

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