Lang Lang snoozes before shows

Lang Lang.

Before he goes on stage, Chinese pianist Lang Lang needs to eat some dark chocolate and have a power nap.

"Twenty to thirty minutes, not too long. If I sleep too long, it's hard for me to wake up," the 31-year-old bachelor says in a telephone interview, explaining how he gets through a gruelling schedule of 100 concerts a year around the world.

This week, he has two performances with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Last night, he played Prokofiev's Third Concerto at a gala under the baton of Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) conductor Shui Lan.

Sony Music Classical has just released the pianist's recording of this concerto with the well-known Berlin Philharmonic and its conductor Simon Rattle.

Tomorrow's sold-out show is a rare full recital, in which he performs three Mozart sonatas and Chopin's four ballades. "I used to do 150 concerts a year," he says. "One hundred concerts are a lot nicer because that means in the summer I have two months off."

Still, his schedule remains packed enough that he can spare only 12 minutes to talk, in between interviews and preparing for a recital at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

The Shenyang-born pianist, known for his passionate fingering and expressive style, is the flavour of the year again, since United Nations secretary- general Ban Ki Moon last month appointed him a UN Messenger For Peace, to advocate global education.

Lang is one of only a dozen prominent persons named to this role, including primate scientist Jane Goodall. He is also the first Chinese person on the list and accepts the responsibility of being the "face of China" even as he prefers not to focus on it.

"It's a great responsibility, but I really never think about it. I just like to do something that would be very meaningful to myself and to the world and to the Chinese worldwide.

The important thing is focusing on real things, not fantasies like titles."

"Real things" for him include getting more music classes into public schools and encouraging young people to have a well-rounded education.

A child prodigy turned career pianist, he is well-qualified to speak on this. His parents are professional musicians who inspired him to love the piano - without pushing.

"My father told me encouraging stories, helping me to read Mozart's letters, Beethoven's life story or told me what Chopin's life was like," says the musician who started playing at age three, gave his first public performance at age five and joined Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music at age nine.

His parents also asked his friends home to play "weekend concerts". Everyone took out their instruments, practised, performed and were rewarded by a sumptuous dinner cooked by Lang's mother. "That was interesting, because you'd see other kids playing and want to be there too."

At age 13, a recital he gave in Beijing received national and international attention and he was offered a scholarship to the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia, where he studied with American pianist Gary Graffman. This provided stability, he says, as for two years, the school restricted him to only a few performances - one of those was his debut in Singapore, as guest pianist for the SSO, at age 14 in 1997 - and made him learn other subjects as well.

His big break came in 1999, when he was just 17 but asked to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a replacement for pianist Andre Watts.

Was it luck? Partly, but he was also prepared to play Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in a pinch, as part of a long-laid career plan.

"For instrumentalists, at the same time as you're studying, you need to think about your career, each piece you play, what is it for, which occasion are you going to play that piece. You have a lovely, precise plan."

The hard truth is musicians need to start early. "There is no way you can become super famous after 30 years old if nobody knows you before that. It's not impossible, but it will be very, very difficult," he says.

Yet, even if children are unable to formulate such detailed plans for themselves, parents should not push them to practise and perform, he says.

"Focus on how to inspire kids to like the piano first. If you know, really know, how to inspire kids to play the piano, then they won't stop playing."

akshitan@sph.com.sg


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