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HuffPost Conversation with Lang Lang

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A Conversation with Lang Lang and HuffPost's Mike Ragogna

Mike Ragogna: Sir, with your new album Lang Lang In Paris, you are a bit subversive. How I mean that is in the West, Chopin compositions are traditionally performed very lightly and meditative with Tchaikovsky are bombastic. However, you seemed to have flipped the approaches. Tell me what your philosophy was when you approached the album.

Lang Lang: I had planned this recital for the whole year. I love Tchaikovsky's Seasons. I did it when I was a kid, "May," "June" and "October," those very famous pieces. It's actually very nice to do all twelve together. It really shows the change of the seasons, from January to February, February to March and all this. There are very subtle, very delicate changes between each month. Then I saw the Chopin Scherzo, two years ago I did Chopin's Ballade so I thought this is a continuation of bringing more of Chopin's major pieces into the continuity. Maybe every two years, maybe every three years, I just want to maybe one day complete the Chopin circle.

MR: What do you think of the relativity of the two pieces you performed on this album? Do you see a relationship between them?

LL: Yes. The melodic things in Tchaikovsky make it almost like a song. You can put lyrics in it. For many passages in the Chopin etudes there are a lot of technical turns. But I also heard Polish lullabies in it, from my Polish friend. They say absolutely every song has lyrics. As you know in Tchaikovsky not only does it have lyrics, but every song is actually inspired by a famous Russian poem. There's Pushkin, there's Tolstoy, it's really inspired by the words and the lyrics.

MR: How did you shift between the seasons internally while recording?

LL: The music speaks for itself. It's not so difficult because when you have a melody like June it's very obvious that June is coming. I don't need to push myself because letting the music speak naturally is kind of the best way to do it. Between each piece I actually did not really stop playing. March, April, May and June I actually played as one piece so I could save a little bit of time in between but you could see the leaf changes colors, becomes really green and the water melts from the frozen winter. I'm trying to create a poetic moment. Especially in the DVD you can really see it because the video was one shot in those four months in a row.

MR: How did recording it at the Opera Bastille influence or affect the recording?

LL: Paris in general is a city which is very beautiful. Near the Opera Bastille, there is a beautiful park right on the river. In between the sessions I always go out and enjoy the sun a little bit and have a coffee along the river. That gave me some inspiration. But honestly for me the most inspiring experience was to tape the little concert at the Versailles Hall of Mirrors. That was really inspiring, because that room is so beautiful with the mirrors all over. It has the most beautiful garden in the world as well. During the recording, in the beginning, it was raining and then later it was cloudy and then in the evening it became sunshine. It was really weird. One day felt like all four seasons.

MR: So the quality of life had a lot of impact on both recordings. What you took in from Paris you brought into the studio with you.

LL: Yeah. I prefer live, personally, especially with floating music. Pieces like Tchaikovsky. A studio is fine, but I prefer live, so that's why we did both. Somehow I feel more comfortable recording live. The vibe of the room is different when I play with people. It's more enjoyable. But it's fine, because in the studio you can really work on the sound, you can get whatever sound you want, but as a live performer I prefer live. I would like to think live without being on stage. I can not just live in a studio.

MR: When you were only seventeen, you replaced André Watts for a Ravinia concert, and coincidentally, you played Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. So Tchaikovsky and you have had a very long relationship.

LL: Yes. I really admire Tchaikovsky as a composer because he has the most beautiful passion and emotions in his music. He really put his heart into the music, but at the same time he's very elegant as well. By listening to the music you really hear the ballerinas, you really hear Swan Lake, you really hear the nutcrackers. He's very deep, very powerful, but very elegant. It's a really incredible combination to have in one composer. Sometimes when you're so passionate you're music is beautiful, with a lot of meat, but not a lot of depth. But Tchaikovsky has all of the qualities in music but he's still very elegant.

MR: Is this something that you discovered as you played his works over the years?

LL: Yeah!

MR: So how do you approach Tchaikovsky differently now from when you originally played it?

LL: Now when I play it I think I'm more clear in my mind about what I want to create. When you are a teenager you play with love and passion. I used my mind and my heart to play even at seventeen, but now I think it's better. One day, I would love to record those old pieces again. I know more things and more possibilities. I have more experience.

MR: It's almost like as you get older, you temper. As a seventeen-year-old full of passion, who could you relate to? Tchaikovsky is almost a no-brainer.

LL: As I get older I read composers better. They're like your friends. You know them more after ten years, more after fifteen years, more after twenty five years. They become family. You grow up with their music and you get closer. I often listen to my old recordings, and I like them very much because I dig the freshness of making music, and that is also very good.

MR: Let's talk about your relationship with Chopin over the years. What has changed about the way you played him then and now?

LL: I like my older versions very much. Tchaikovsky and Chopin weren't really difficult for me as a kid, I've always felt really close to their music. Over the years, I improved but Chopin I felt already very close to myself as a teenager. I think you can actually feel those composers already when you're young. Chopin and Tchaikovsky are good for younger generations to perform.

MR: As you get older are you taking a different look at Chopin?

LL: Yes. I would say there are a lot of reflections over the years that I've studied by working with the best musicians. Somehow you get a lot of new ideas of how to play those pieces. I actually feel that. Playing Beethoven when I was a teenager and playing Beethoven now, it's like another person. So different. But Chopin and Tchaikovsky, it's good for every age. You don't feel such a big difference as with Mozart or Brahms or Bach. It's not because it's easier or harder, but Chopin and Tchaikovsky are friendlier to younger people. That's why when a new pianist comes out people ask them to play Tchaikovsky No. 1. You see a very young pianist and you say, "Play Beethoven No. 4." It's in people's heads, actually.

MR: What are your observations of how young people are coming into classical music since it's getting harder and harder for them to discover it in the traditional way.

LL: Yes. For me it's not that difficult because I have a foundation, we have programs in high schools, middle school and elementary schools. We also have an event called One Hundred And One Pianists that brings pianists to play together in every age. So for me I don't want to talk too much, I want to take action. I want to really show our next generation that classical music is very passionate, it's very cool, it's very updated. I never like to talk much about music. When you talk about music it's not so much fun, but when you start playing and you show them on the keys or on the method, "How do you do it?" the kids get it in one second.

MR: Have your students ever taught you anything?

LL: Absolutely. We are all human beings and we all make the same mistakes. Sometimes when I'm telling the student, "Hey, look at that, you are making these problems," I'm like, "Oh my God, I am actually talking to myself." [laughs]

MR: Are there any students that you've worked with who really impressed you in an over-the-top way?

LL: Absolutely. I think every kid from my foundation, the Young Scholars program, I believe everyone on that program will become a good pianist in the future.

MR: Beautiful. Are there any student you're listening to that make you think, "I've got to keep an eye on that one."

LL: There are a few. There's one little guy, his name is Johnson Zhongxin Li, he already played with me at Carnegie Hall, he's quite good. There are a few others, we can send you the names. I think they'll be big in the future.

MR: Because you've had experience in working with young students, what advice do you have for new artists?

LL: I know exactly the feelings, because I was a new artist for many years. It's not easy. I hope everybody will have more luck in the very beginning. In the beginning sometimes people just don't know who you are so sometimes they don't come to your concert, they don't really agree with what you do and that is very difficult. I remember when I was playing in the beginning I played in a big concert hall but only two hundred people came. I am so appreciative of those two hundred people; they are like my saviors, but at the same time of course my heart was kind of bleeding. "Oh my God, I'm not going to make a career. I will lose a future in front of me because nobody knows who I am and nobody cares about me." Sometimes our heart is very breakable. I just want to tell those new artists, "Please be strong. Ignore that." Those things will change after you play really well, because after you play really well you can grow your audience. I think everybody will face the same problem as an unknown artist and then one day I'm sure things will change, so don't give up.

MR: Nicely said. It seems like every year the field of classical music has to push the boundaries in order to survive. How do you think classical music will evolve?

LL: There are a few things that we need to change. The first thing is music education. That's number one. You can't just say, "Hey guys, come see a concert," you need to give them instructions before. Otherwise they'll probably come, but they'll probably just go right away because they don't know what they are looking at and you can not compare it to anything. It's something we really need to do much more of in music education. That's why I really strongly recommend every musician to spend some time as a volunteer to the schools, to the elementary schools, to the kindergartens. Give the kids the best first impressions of music. That's number one. Number two, we need to have very creative programs. At civic centers and concert halls, we need to find very interesting programs and interesting works. Combinations between artists, new works, new pieces to play to make it a little more updated. We cannot just be lazy and say, "Okay, I only do standard repertoire, I only do this composer, I only do this." You can not be like that. We need to be more creative on that. Then it's the image thing. For example, social media now is a perfect way to show how cool classical music and musicians can be. We are not just living in history, we are very fresh blood in the twenty first century as well. I always thought in order to show the real world we are living in, going out and having a nice time, eating good food, making good friends and talking about life in music in a way that people will think, "Oh, they are also normal people." [laughs] You know what I mean? It's not like we are hiding every day under the ground. We are sometimes. I spend a lot of time hiding underground in a concert hall, but we are also normal! We are not ghosts.

MR: You talked about fresh music. So when is the Lang Lang original compositions album coming out?

LL: [laughs] I'm now writing massive books called The Lang Lang Academy, so through those books, I will gradually proof some of my own work. But as you know, I am not a real composer. But I can do something, I can make something out. I need a collaborator, some really great composers to help me. But stay tuned. We will get there someday. I don't know how long from now, but I think gradually, we will put my own music into an album or some books.

MR: Maybe you need a return to Paris for inspiration.

LL: [laughs] Yes, maybe Paris, or New York.

MR: What else is happening that we should know about?

LL: I'm quite excited to go to Cuba today. This is my first concert in Havana.

MR: Congratulations! Is this because of the new relations between the United States and Cuba?

LL: This will be the celebration of Havana's five hundredth year as a city. This is the first concert that's going to be broadcast on American and world television. It will be broadcast on PBS, I don't know when, but soon. This is their first concert that will have a world impact.

MR: So Lang Lang is continuing to be a pioneer.

LL: Thank you Mike!