Video: Visit www.azpbs.org to sign up today.
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.