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October 23, 2013

Host: Ted Simons

Pianist Lang Lang

  |   Video
  • World-renowned pianist Lang Lang has been called the “hottest artist on the classical music planet” by The New York Times. The Chinese-born pianist will perform with the Phoenix Symphony at Symphony Hall on Thursday, October 24. Meet Lang Lang on Arizona Horizon.
  • Lang Lang - World-Renowned Pianist
Category: The Arts   |   Keywords: pianist, music, phoenix, classical,

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Ted Simons: World renowned pianist Lang Lang has been called the hottest artist on the classical music planet by "The New York Times." (piano music) Lang Lang will perform in town with the Phoenix Symphony Thursday, October 24. Joining us tonight is Lang Lang. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Lang Lang: Thank you, Ted.

Ted Simons: You are a big deal on the classical -- Before we get to all that business, though, you've been to Arizona before?

Lang Lang: Yes. This is my sixth time here.

Ted Simons: What do you think?

Lang Lang: It's very nice and hot. [laughter]

Ted Simons: OK. Have you had a chance to see the scenery? I wonder about concert artists, do you go to a town and stay in a hotel and perform and go back to the hotel? How much do you get around?

Lang Lang: I remember my first time being here was 2001, and I still remember. I came with my father, and we were prepared a Chinese box before a concert. Take-out from the freeze – it was a bit cold, so we put it on the street, so five minutes later we had a very nice dinner.

Ted Simons: There you go. It’s the old boiling the egg on the sidewalk. I’ve got to ask you, before we get to what you're doing now, I want to know about -- because you were a prodigy. You started very young. But you started, you were inspired by a cartoon? A Tom and Jerry cartoon?

Lang Lang: So I was two years and a half, and my parents bought me a piano, but that's already when I was one year old. So I was watching one of my favorite cartoons, Tom and Jerry. And as you know, there's an episode called "The Cat’s Concerto." So Tom with a tuxedo, nice tie, and starts playing the piano. That was my first inspiration. I look at the big concert piano and I look at my little upright piano, I think that's the father and that's the son. I start playing. That was my first try-out.

Ted Simons: How old were you when you felt the -- A kid's a kid and an adult feels the music differently, but when did you feel that music as part of you?

Lang Lang: I would say when I performed for the first time. I was five years old. I played Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” and I thought that was such a beautiful music. And also the stage light. Like now, you know. Very warm, and also after playing I got a flower from a little girl; I thought that was cool.

Ted Simons: Five years old, already, huh? When you were -- When you start so young and you're good so young, and people are watching you, did you feel pressure at all?

Lang Lang: I mean, I must say it was not always very lucky. When I was seven, I joined a competition in which I actually think I lost. So I was like not even number seven. So I got a consolation prize, a little toy. But I think that actually encouraged me the most from so many years. So I think sometimes when you're not so good, it's actually makes you try to work harder.

Ted Simons: Interesting. And you did work harder, and you did obviously move up. It seems as though you connect with the audience in ways that might be a little different than other artists. Do you feel it? Do you feel when you're connecting with the audience?

Lang Lang: I would say no matter whether you're a pop star, whether you're a jazz musician or classical musician, in the end we need to get moved by the music, and we need to be totally connected with our heart and our soul to the composition that we're playing. And sometimes I felt that you're going to a concert, everything was very perfect. But somehow the soul, the heart is not there. And I think it's very important when audience or musicians listen to another performance, what they like to hear is your sincerity. And the totally concentrated bridge between your heart and the keyboard.

Ted Simons: When you have your heart and your keyboard bridged like that, how do you know there's another bridge going out to that audience? How do you know they're with you?

Lang Lang: I actually, you know, when you start thinking about that, then it becomes artificial. If you're like, look at me! Look! Then it's not good. It needs to be totally sincere. So the thing is when you're moved by the music yourself, then you have a chance to move to other people.

Ted Simons: It's interesting you mention that because some critics of your style say you're too flamboyant, you're too showy. First of all, respond to that, and what is the difference between having a flair and having that connection and being too showy?

Lang Lang: There are a lot of different kinds of repertoire. Tomorrow we'll play a very (unintelligible word) piece, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, and you need to be to not show off, but to give all your abilities to take it out. But sometimes when you play really incredible music by Beethoven, slow movement, Adagio by Brahms, and that time everything becomes the heart. And the intellectual power rather than the technique part. So it depends on the pieces. It's almost like a great actor. You need to be capable in playing different roles.

Ted Simons: Do you find yourself as you age handling that differently? Are you different now than you were years ago in terms of that persona on stage?

Lang Lang: It's a little bit easier to come down a bit when you're getting certain level of playing and certain maturity. But the freshness of what do you call, the instincts shouldn't change. Because if your instinct changes it's not good.

Ted Simons: Do you find as you age that certain pieces of music when you were younger affected you this way, now they affect you that way?

Lang Lang: Yes, for example the piece I played ten years ago, even the piece I play tomorrow, it's slightly different, because after years you learn new things, and those new ideas gave you another way, another alternative way to play this piece. So it's sometimes hard to know which one is better, but certainly it's a different input.

Ted Simons: You don't really care about which one is better per se, you just care about what you're feeling in the moment. Correct?

Lang Lang: There are certain, you know, a frame of the work you need to follow, the instruction of the scores, obviously, but after that you need to free yourself and to put some personal ideas on top of the original scores. And the interesting thing is, when you hear the composers playing their piece, you see a very kind of interesting input on top of the score. So you know that they gave you the room to do it.

Ted Simons: Interesting. You obviously, you started as a kid, I know getting other young people involved in classical music is very important to you. Talk to us about that.

Lang Lang: In 2008 I started a foundation based in New York called the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. So now we have very talented next generation artists, which we are mentoring them in our programs. Some of them already played with me three times at Carnegie Hall. Hopefully I'll bring some of them to Phoenix area next time. And we also started a public school support what we call Lang Lang Inspires Programs, and now we gave about $600,000, for three years in the school in Boston, and we gave them new instruments and also we hire some teachers to train them in music.

Ted Simons: As far as getting young people involved in this type of music, how do you keep their attention? How do you get that spark? Because there's -- between computers and the TV, and the smart phones and this and that, there's so much going on, so much of it is pop, quick, fast. How do you get them to figure out that Adagio is really something special?

Lang Lang: Obviously you don't start with Adagio. A great suggestion because today our world becomes so fast and so kind of multiple. But in music, you think about a good performance, it's like a multimedia platform. The only way to listen to music is to hear, right? But when the music comes into your ear, comes into your brain, it needs to be vertical -- it cannot be just flat. So you need to see the characters, you need to see the messages, you need to see the colors, you need to see the structure, and you need to see the dynamics. So I think everything needs to be multiple. So in a way, that -- this time of the year, when I'm talking about music to kids, we have -- we use smartphones, we use whatever pad, and we start also physically playing it together. Not just talking. Talking is good, more like a music class. We want to get people to play together.

Ted Simons: That's for kids. Let's talk about some older kids, let's talk about adults who still find classical music intimidating, and they don't know what they're missing. Sounds kind of nice, but there are people -- you are putting your heart and soul into that and they're trying to figure out, what am I -- what are they missing? How do you tell someone this is what you need to do to appreciate classical music?

Lang Lang: I think they just need to go to more concerts, and maybe to see a good concert. [laughter]

Ted Simons: That's a good idea. Maybe not try so hard?

Lang Lang: Yeah, not try too hard, but to maybe go to YouTube, just find some videos of great musicians performing, people like Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Pavarotti, and like Leonard Bernstein, get a shorter clip and then I think it's very automatically. And they just feel it. When you feel it, everything opens. And sometimes there's some kind of maybe paper in front of you, but if you -- if it breaks through, then everything comes.

Ted Simons: You buy every Lang Lang C.D. ever made and you can't stop playing them. You played at the 2008 Olympics, the opening ceremonies in China. What was that like?

Lang Lang: It was a gigantic stage, and I was playing with this little girl who's like five years old. And I was like baby-sitter. Please, don't run. There's a lot of people watching you now, just let's play together, having fun. And then after five minutes I couldn't find her. I was so scared!

Ted Simons: Where did she go?

Lang Lang: She ran somewhere.

Ted Simons: We talked about pressure when you were younger, on a situation like that, you're representing China. And in many ways you do represent China in terms of the arts, in terms of the growth of the country, where the country's future is headed. Do you feel pressure there?

Lang Lang: Not really. I just do my best to perform and to a good kind of cultural ambassador.

Ted Simons: You don’t feel like you're necessarily a symbol of China's growth and China's changing image on the stage?

Lang Lang: I'm happy I've become kind of a global citizen, and to kind of share what our generation is thinking about toward the future. And I think this generation needs to be a very open generation to the global -- one big village. And I think as a musician, that's probably one of the best things is that we are communicators, and through a piece, you don't need to know the culture, but you kind of understood what you're talking about.

Ted Simons: Yeah. You live in New York, correct?

Lang Lang: Yes.

Ted Simons: Why do you live in New York?

Lang Lang: I used to live in Philadelphia, and then I moved after graduation and so it's just a very big city, and a lot of people, so a lot of parties. [laughter]

Ted Simons: OK. We can talk about that later. You have places in China as well, homes in China?

Lang Lang: I have a home in Beijing, yes.

Ted Simons: But most of the time in New York?

Lang Lang: Most of the time actually I'm in airplane.

Ted Simons: Before you go, I gotta ask you, what is your -- not necessarily to play, but when you just want to listen to the epitome of classical music, what do you listen to?

Lang Lang: I actually love to listen to modern symphonies, and I love to learn -- I love jazz.

Ted Simons: Do you?

Lang Lang: My favorite artist is Herbie Hancock. He taught me a lot of great tricks.

Ted Simons: You played with Herbie Hancock, didn’t you?
Lang Lang: He taught me a lot of great tricks of playing jazz.

Ted Simons: Isn't that something. Head Hunters is one of those old albums that never goes -- It was a pleasure having you here. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck with the concert tomorrow and good to have you back in Arizona.

Lang Lang: Thank you, Ted.

Ted Simons: Thank you.

School Overrides

  |   Video
  • More than 30 school districts in Maricopa County will turn to voters this year in school override elections which, if approved, allow schools to override their budget. Some district officials say they need money from local taxpayers to make up for cuts in state funding. Scottsdale Superintendent David Peterson and John Fischer, executive director of Stand for Children in Arizona, will discuss overrides and the reasons schools seek them.
  • David Peterson - Superintendent, Scottsdale
  • John Fischer - Executive Director, Stand for Children
Category: Education   |   Keywords: school, education, budget, election, funding,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. More than 30 school districts in Maricopa County will turn to voters this year in hopes of approving bonds and budget overrides. Some district officials say the money from local taxpayers is needed to make up for years of cuts in state funding. Joining me to talk about school bond and override elections are Scottsdale superintendent David Peterson, and John Fischer, Executive Director of Stand for Children in Arizona, a group committed to improving education. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us. Let's define terms because I know a lot of people, their eyes are already glazing over. What is a school bond? What is an override election?

David Peterson: That's a great question. We get that a lot, because people do confuse those things. We look at bonds, bonds start with a “B” so we say buildings and buses. You can buy buildings and buses with bonds. Overrides, that's “O,” that’s operations, people and programs.

Ted Simons: Basically this is local funding for local schools.

David Peterson: It's the local control of our constituents that says we want to fund these things so we have quality educational programs for our children.

Ted Simons: Are there different overrides for different things?

John Fischer: Absolutely. So each individual district that goes out for a bond or override has to define what specifically those additional dollars are going to support. So in one district it could be -- We're working with the Roosevelt School District, the override is supporting extended school time, and in Alhambra they're working on a capital override to increase the amount of technology in their school.

Ted Simons: Can there be more than one thing that the money would go to or do you have to emphasize one in particular?

John Fischer: There can be multiple.

Ted Simons: If there are multiple, does it make it more difficult to get through? What are the dynamics?

John Fischer: It really does make it a little more difficult to explain to the community what the funds are going to support. And that's critical in making sure that it's passed, because the community is ultimately the decider in whether or not the bond passes or the override passes.

Ted Simons: You can do an override for books, utilities, daily operations. Again, are they structured in a way where you got to vote for this or you got to vote for that? What are voters faced with?

David Peterson: As John said, overrides are a couple things. Capital overrides are good for seven years, and you get that same amount of funding every year for seven years depending on what the voters approve. An M&O override, for operational expenses, is a percentage. We can go up to 15 precent of our budget additional funding. In Scottsdale we use that additional dollars to pay for all-day kindergarten, because the state of Arizona will only pay for half the day of a student to go to kindergarten. We use it to lower class sizes, to have electives in our elementary schools for art, P.E., band, music, that the state doesn't fund it.

Ted Simons: It seems to me that overrides were originally designed to be additions to state funds. Has that particular equation changed?

David Peterson: That equation has changed big-time. Since 2008, we have received a reduction of over 20 percent in our funding from the state of Arizona. And because of that, we've had to shift some of these dollars, again, 90 percent of our budget is people. It's teachers. And so as you start losing dollars, you don't want to lose teachers, you shift money around and keep them.

Ted Simons: Is that something, do you think is clear to voters, is that message out there that what you're doing now isn't so much for the extras -- You hear override you think above and beyond. It sounds like it's filling in gaps.

John Fischer: I think it depends on the individual district and how strong the connection is between the district and the community. Parents really need to engage in the conversation with the school district, with the school board members, research what the funds are going to support, go to the district website to find out more about what specifically their override or bond is going to implement.

Ted Simons: We have 30 plus county votes this go around. How come so many?

John Fischer: I think part of it is the fact due to the loss in revenue to the general fund, there were cuts. So districts are looking for additional ways to maintain that basic level of service that really the communities have come to expect.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned the time frame on some of these instruments, if you will, they're come due, a lot of them, aren’t they?

David Peterson: That's why there's a significant number. Every five years we have to renew that M&O override. And in a lot of districts, we are at year five. So this is a renewal. It's not a new increase, it's not a new tax, it's a renewal of what we've already had in place, so a lot of districts are doing that. To put it in perspective, one out of every six students in Maricopa County this year is being touched by an override or bond election.

Ted Simons: And yet we had a third of these elections last year fail. Why?

David Peterson: I believe anecdotally, they failed because there was a lot of confusion. We had prop 204 on the ballot, and people were confused. And I don't blame them when they were confused. They decided, let's vote no because we don't understand things. So our job this year was to truly educate and help people understand the value and the support they can bring to our district.

Ted Simons: How much did that extension of the one cent sales tax, how much did that impact, do you think, the votes last year?

John Fischer: It's really impossible to speculate. Certainly it added to the conversation that was happening around funding for schools, and I think that was a great point around, was there clarity on what the funds were going to, whether it was prop 204 and the individual overrides that were being decided upon.

Ted Simons: And again, critics of the override election and bonds to a certain degree as well, they say this is a way that just keeps property taxes high and increasing from where they even are now. Valid argument?

John Fischer: It honestly depends. I think that's why it's such a local decision, and it's important for local constituents to engage in that conversation. Money for the sake of money doesn't support education, but making sure those dollars are going to specific resources or specific programs that are going to benefit students and increase academic achievement, it's the responsibility of the local voter, the local homeowner to make that decision.

Ted Simons: Talk about the relationship between property taxes and what school districts are asking voters to do.

David Peterson: Sure. Our schools in Arizona are predominantly funded with property taxes. And in Scottsdale's case, this override is an increase because we were not successful last year, so we're having to make up that money that we lost, which was about $4 million. So for us when you put it in perspective for the homeowner, it comes to six cents a day. Six cents a day is what we're asking additional dollars to be paid in order to have the programs we have.

Ted Simons: Was that message made clear last go-around?

David Peterson: I believe so, but there was just confusion with the other initiatives on the ballot.

Ted Simons: I'm trying to figure out, again, because you see the signs, yes on this, yes on this, I support education, yes, yes, yes. Who is voting no on these things? Are these homeowners that are saying enough is enough? Do they want to see changes in terms of where the money is going and how the budgets are structured? What's going on out there?

David Peterson: I think transparency is very important. We work very hard to make sure we're transparent with our finances, that we share that information; we have a tremendous amount of information on our website. Some voters are probably skeptical and we sit down and talk with them and they say, gosh, I know now that that money is truly going to my local school district. I will support it.

Ted Simons: Does this in some way take heat off of the legislature, off of the governor, off of whomever is responsible for the general fund and getting -- Obviously education money, there was some in the last budget, but before that, pretty big-time cuts for quite a while here. Are local folks now just taking up the load?

John Fischer: In the short term, they are. But I don't think it takes pressure off the legislature because the expectations are being raised on what schools are expected to accomplish. We have Arizona's College and Career Ready Standards, this year for the first time are being implemented K-12. What we're expecting students to be able to accomplish is that much higher. So honestly schools are being expected to do much more to make sure students are ready for college and career.

Ted Simons: Talk about those changes in standards. We won't call it Common Core because I guess we’re not allowed to anymore, but talk about those changes and what schools are facing.

David Peterson: Schools are facing a major shift. This is probably one of the largest educational reforms that has ever come across the country. The good thing about it, our students are performing at higher levels. Our kindergartener students used to --we would be happy if they knew their numbers, colors, and shapes. They're now writing four and five-sentence paragraphs. The standards have really driven down, so what we used to do in first and second grade we're now having our kindergarteners do. Our students are performing at incredible levels.

Ted Simons: Last question for both of you, what do school districts need to do in order to make it more clear as to what's involved in this vote, and again, what do critics need to do to make their position more clear?

David Peterson: I think again we need to communicate. We need to make sure we have our message sent to folks, and that we give the opportunity for people to come in and ask questions.

Ted Simons: What do you think?

John Fischer: You’ve got to get out there. It's not something that can be done via a website. It's going to be done based on relationships, knocking on doors and having individual conversations with voters.

Ted Simons: All right. It's good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.

David Peterson: Thank you.