Saturday, 6 September 2014

Review: Lang Lang: Journey of a Thousand Miles My Story

The book recounts the first 20 years of his life
I've always enjoyed pianist Lang Lang's playing. Some accuse him of being an entertainer, who makes dramatic gestures at the piano and acts like he's really into the music, others, particularly mainland Chinese, think he's elitist and lives a luxurious life that is completely detached from their own.

While I'm not a technical musician, I enjoy listening to classical music and if it's performed by an artist who evokes an emotional response, all the more memorable.

When I was in Beijing, a young friend of mine was totally in love with him, thinking he was very cute. We had the chance to attend an event he was at, sponsored by Montblanc, announcing an upcoming concert. She sat up front, trying to make eyes with him the whole time, while he tried desperately not to look in her direction...

I picked up a discounted copy of his autobiography, Lang Lang: Journey of a Thousand Miles My Story several months ago. It's a fast read and details life from before he was born to when he started playing the piano before the age of two until his professional career was well under way in his early 20s. And along the way there are people and circumstances he encounters that seem like fate or very good luck.

Lang Lang playing at home in Shenyang with no air con
His father is the nemesis character in this book -- absolutely driven to ensure that his son would be the number one pianist in Shenyang, then in Beijing, then in the country, then the world. His solution? Practice, practice, practice and practice.

He could not think of any other way to become a great musician except sheer hard work and discipline, and he ensured Lang Lang would not have a chance to slack off.

Lang Guoren was already ambitious when he was young and musical too, being a professional musician for the People's Liberation Army air force -- but that career only went so far. Lang Lang's mother Zhou Xiulan had nigh hopes of becoming a professional dancer, but her background was not considered politically correct as her grandfather was a landlord and previous generations as well.

With the couple's hopes dashed, they placed all their energy and dreams on Lang Lang.

Luckily he is competitive by nature, and so as a child, practicing was like a game, his father drumming it in his head to be number one. However, Lang Guoren's insistence on pushing Lang Lang constantly was the source of their friction.

At one point the father is so angry at his son for being late to practice the piano, saying it brought shame to the family, that he shouts at Lang Lang to swallow a bunch of pills and jump off the balcony of their Beijing apartment.

They had come to the Chinese capital, sacrificing Lang Guoren's job, and now depended on Zhou Xiulan's salary to support the three of them, which meant living at times in dire straits.

With his mother Zhou Xiulan
After the shocking incident, Lang Lang refused to touch the piano for several months, still angry with his father. But after a period of time Lang Lang realizes how much he misses it and slowly gets back to it. And eventually he wins a scholarship to the Music Conservatory.

Then the budding pianist starts competing in various music competitions and there are some stops and starts, but for the most part he is number one. Then when he was 12 years old he and his father scrapped up enough money to compete in Germany.

It was his first trip abroad and it opened his eyes to other musicians, particularly a blind Japanese pianist, who made him realize it was important to have the emotion of the music in his hands while playing.

Another seminal moment was going to a summer music camp in Walnut Hill, near Boston. Here was able to be a relatively normal teenager, pick up English, play tennis, basketball, swim, walk in the woods.

Once he had that taste of America, he wanted more and was determined to return -- which he did with a full scholarship to Curtis music school under the tutelage of Gary Graffman.

I have watched Graffman play and he's superb despite not being able to use much of his left hand. And in Lang Lang's book he also explains Graffman is very learned in Chinese culture which was interesting to know, helping the young pianist bridge the gap between East and West.

Again, Lang Lang learned more about the United States, from the history and culture, hip hop, slang, girls and Shakespeare. He met some wonderful mentors along the way who were there to answer his questions about everything.

Father and son, Lang Guoren and Lang Lang
During this time Lang Guoren was floundering, not being able to learn English as quickly as his son and feeling out of place in this country Lang Lang was so keen to live in. The cultural differences are interesting to read, as father now becomes more dependent on the son.

His big break came when he replaced Andre Watts in Ravinia and wowed the crowd with Maestro Christoph Eschenbach and violinist Isaac Stern on stage.

Lang Lang's career quickly took off, and luckily Graffman was there to guide him, to not take critics too seriously and enjoy the moment.

Interestingly when the young pianist returned to China, he expected to be treated like a star -- but instead was constantly questioned as to why he didn't compete to prove his worth -- which was a paradigm Lang Lang had moved away from. He tried to explain this was not done in the West, but not having this measurement of success made it difficult for the Chinese to embrace Lang Lang as their own.

But that hasn't stopped Lang Lang from performing in China and continues to do so on a regular basis. And he has moved on to traveling around the world, giving some insight into the life of a professional musician, that it's hard to maintain friendships with people he's just met, but the opportunity to play is what he cherishes the most.

Lang Lang has definitely lived a rags-to-riches life, but not all completely smooth sailing. He has paid the price of dealing with a tough father who wanted nothing but the best for his son -- as long as he practiced and practiced and practiced. In the end Lang Lang has turned out well and all the more appreciative of is family for making him who he is today.

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