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Classic FM Drive with John Brunning 4pm - 7pm
18 November 2020, 11:08
With a biopic coming out about his journey to classical stardom, we ask Lang Lang about Hollywood’s retelling of his difficult childhood, his musical hopes for his own child, and how he’s navigating music-making in 2020.
It’s been quite the year’s end for Lang Lang. In September the Chinese classical pianist released his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, an achievement he says took him “20 years to have the confidence to record”.
“From my early career I was more into Romantic repertoire so it’s not like Bach is my bread and butter,” he says. “But now after this tremendous experience of playing Goldberg Variations, in the future I will do much more Baroque music than before.”
And just a month later, he shared the news that he and his pianist wife, Gina Redlinger, were expecting their first child. “We could not be happier,” the pianist tweeted at the time, with a sketch of a baby and a piano attached. One very musical household, we imagine.
But for many musicians, 2020 has been a year of unanticipated anxiety. For Lang Lang, who is currently based in Shanghai, what’s his perspective on the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on our world? “It’s really, really horrible. This is the biggest hit ever for our musicians’ career,” he says.
“Many artists are losing their jobs and are in deep trouble financially. But still, music needs to keep going – we cannot surrender.”
In December the Lang Lang Foundation, an organisation providing access to music education for children, will present a virtual event called the Lang Lang & Friends Virtual Concert: Reaching Dreams Through Music, starring musicians ranging from British singer-songwriter Sam Smith to US operatic soprano Renée Fleming.
For the event, which will be streamed on YouTube, Lang Lang has invited students from public schools nearby, as well as some US schools, to join him in some virtual music-making.
“Every kid has the right to learn an instrument,” he says. “And the aim is to celebrate music together and to obviously raise funds for different schools around the world to have the possibility to learn an instrument at school.
“This is not only a concert, it’s about how music changed our life.”
Music for young people has always been close to Lang Lang’s heart. He’s spoken candidly about the need for better music education in schools worldwide. How’s he feeling about his own child’s journey into music?
“I would say that music changed my life and it made me much more interesting as a person. And I think my kid has to play the piano. I mean, I wouldn’t say ‘has to’, but I would inspire him or her to learn an instrument… obviously piano!
“But she or he will decide whether piano will become a real profession. But that’s out of my hands. But I would give the kid a chance to learn music. I think that’s the best gift any parent can give to their child.”
Lang Lang’s own childhood, best explained through his relationship with his ambitious father, was difficult. His father sacrificed everything, including his job, to take his son to Beijing with the goal of making him China’s No. 1 classical pianist. But when Lang Lang’s progress wasn’t taking shape in the way he wanted, his father turned on him.
In 2008, Lang Lang finally put pen to paper about their intense relationship for his memoir, Journey of a Thousand Miles. Now, director of the Pavarotti movie Ron Howard has been brought on board to make a film of it, with a microscope on Lang Lang’s journey from his early years of extreme pressure from his father, to being catapulted onto the international stage.
“Certainly, as a Chinese [person], this story already looks pretty tough,” the pianist says. “And obviously for the Western standard, it’s quite a difficult relationship between a father and son.
“Obviously, Hollywood likes drama. But the truth is this was happening in a real time and it really happened in the past. So, it’s a very emotional journey for me and my father.”
Their relationship now – “because of music”, he says – is finally, happily, mended.
What does he hope people will take from the biopic? “I really hope it will be something inspiring… a combination of A Beautiful Mind and Rocky,” he says.
“What he [Ron Howard] likes about my story is very simple. No matter where he’s from and where I’m from, we all share a similar idea in lifestyle, we all have the same dream, no matter I’m Chinese and he’s American. We might be different culturally, but as human beings, we are the same.”
The biopic hit some controversy on Twitter when Chinese American director of The Farewell, Lulu Wang, questioned Howard’s role as a white filmmaker, at the helm of a story about a Chinese-born pianist. What did Lang Lang make of it all?
“I believe Ron Howard is a genius,” he replies, simply. “And also, because I will be the producer, we will talk very closely about everything we think is authentic. You know, this is my story – so I know what is authentic and not authentic, culturally.
“I’m sure we will come up with a great bridge between Chinese and American culture. I think this will be a perfect match. I’m not worried at all.”
One final question to Lang Lang, before he runs off to rehearse: what, if any, positives have come from this year for the classical world?
“Unfortunately, this is not a year for us. But one thing it reminds us, is that nothing will replace live concerts. So, I hope that we will have more attention from concertgoers, more demand for more live concerts.
“That’s what I hope, because I’m desperate to get back to the concert hall. And not only for myself. I also want to hear great concerts in concert halls.”
Watch the Lang Lang International Music Foundation’s virtual concert, Reaching Dreams Through Music, on 12 December 2020 on Lang Lang’s YouTube Channel and Classic FM’s Facebook Page.