Classical Album of the Week: Lang Lang Plays His Favorite Music In "Piano Book"

Apr 29, 2019

April 29, 2019. Internationally renowned pianist Lang Lang joins his virtuosic playing with his passion for music education in a new recording, Piano Book. The 2-CD set, filled with Lang Lang's personal favorites  from childhood and works he's loved throughout the years, is our Classical Album of the Week.

Born in China in 1982, Lang Lang started piano at age 3, came to The Curtis Institute of Music at 14, and became an international sensation not long after that. In 2008, he founded the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, which partners with schools and other organizations to introduce the joy of music-making to children.

This new album, Piano Book, grew from his desire to share with everyone the music that has fueled his passion; to motivate new students, and to encourage people who may have once studied and quit to come back to music and piano lessons.

WRTI's Susan Lewis, who has known Lang Lang since his teenage years in Philadelphia, talked with him about this very personal project. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Susan Lewis: Lang Lang, congratulations! I love the idea of this album. And I love the album cover, too, with the all the pages coming out of the top of the piano.

Lang Lang: [Laughs.] Yes, that's kind of a little crazy, but yeah, but that's the idea, you know, to try to make something very fresh, because those are my favorite pieces from childhood.

How did you come up with this idea? So, I had this idea that I would like to inspire more youngsters, and also music lovers to take piano lessons. Because I believe that when you start touching the keyboard, when you start to play some of those pieces, then you'll realize actually, music is not only in beautiful for listening, but also great to play.

And there's another thing that I still remember.  When I was four years old, I watched Horowitz in Moscow and the most touching moment of the whole recital was the Schumann Träumerei . And I realized, this piece,  technically it's not that difficult, but Horowitze played so different than my neighbors, and I thought, oh my goodness! Those pieces come be sound like that!

So then it gave me the courage to play much more artistically rather than just playing the notes. 

Right.

Yeah. And I think some of the pieces, like the Mozart Sonata in C or Twinkle Twinkle, you'll think, oh my gosh, this is such a child's piece! But actually, I think it's so underrated, in a way, because it's such a great masterful piece.

Maybe it's a smaller piece, but it's a real masterful piece.

And so we have to have a very serious thinking over those pieces again.

Well I was thinking, you've been playing since you were three; it must have been hard to select these pieces. Is this a kind of musical memoir for you? Does each piece have some special resonance for you?

Absolutely. This is exactly the right way to put it. Every piece brings me some beautiful or not pleasant memories.

So for example, some of the pieces I did not like so much! I mean I'm talking about when I was kid.

So the Czerny Etude, that piece was really annoying. Uh, I still remember it, even my neighbor put it on the 'bad thing to-do list.' And so I was  playing slowly every note [sings] Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da -- and that kind of thing.

But now, you know, when I come back to play this piece. I'm like, wow, this is a great rollercoaster piece and is such an artistic piece! And this is a perfect way to learn it before playing any off of the Chopin Etudes. So now I see this piece as an artistic piece. 

And talking about memories—there's one piece called The Maiden's Prayer.

Yes.

That piece is extremely popular in Asia. And nobody actually knows it here,  also in Europe.  Maybe some people know it,  but not so many people like in Asia.

So every time when I'm thinking to play something for some of my classmates, who had no idea about classical music or a piano, I always played that piece, like the appetizer.

And then they are like, wow, it's a beautiful piece. Woo. This is a beautiful, wow, this is like a pop song, you know?   It has a real connection to people's heart. 

And then the Mozart C major Sonata and the Bach Minuet. It was my first recital piece when I was five years old.

So this process of selecting it sounds like it was both intellectual and emotional?

Yes. And then for a bonus, we actually added a lot of world, global, new repertoire for piano because we also believe that piano music has become real worldwide, global kind of ideas.

So we wanted to put more pieces like from different parts of the world, like Africa, Argentina, Sweden, China, Japan, Korea, and Egypt. So it's like kind of collecting postcards.

Do you have any favorites that you go to still today? Just for fun? Or is it all, all of them?

I would say I actually like the Spinning Song of Mendelssohn.

That's dazzling!

Yeah. That's a real spinning song!

Well it's so great that this can be appreciated on so many levels, the idea that you're issuing a limited score addition and sheet music and encouraging people. Actually, I took piano lessons when I was a child and this was making me think, 'Oh wow, I would love to learn to play this. I would love to learn to play this.'  So it will help not just children learn, but I think people of all ages.

Yes. We actually also have the score with all my personal interpretation, ideas behind the notes and our wish is to bring as many people, interested to play piano.  And also -- some people, you know, they had a lot of other things to do. They used to be a pianist, but then they quit.

But then, you know, sometimes I think in life we should, you know, come back to what we really loved the most, as a kid.

Right.

And I think that's kind of the idea. We are trying to bring people back to music, to piano lessons. And also in addition to that, I wanted to make the dedication of this project to all my students. Because there are many students now who are taking a music class. And some, some of them are not so into it and they may get pushed, they may get forced.

But the point is, when you'll hear a music album, you should hear something which will always touch you, which has the power to touch your heart. And you'll do it - not because you get forced to do it, but because you'll get touched emotionally. And so therefore, you are playing this instrument. And this will give you completely different aspect when you start to practice again.

And this album is so great because it has so many different moods! Yes. So whatever you're feeling you can kind of find something to, to express that on this album. So was this inspired by your work as a music educator? We talked in the past about the Lang Lang Music Foundation. How is that going? It seems like you have a lot of programs going on.

Yes, we are really, really proud that we now have a 40 schools in America and then we also have another 40 to 50 schools elsewhere around the world. And then we are also very happy to have a few of those wonderful classes and schools in Philadelphia, my second home! 

And I feel really great because we are not only playing some music, but we have also developed like a real method called Keys of Inspiration. So the idea is to combine with the traditional way of learning music together, with the high tech, like smart pianos combined with IPAD, with a real teacher being there.

And so every kid has their own smart pianos. So it's not like you are sitting there, you are listening, only to your teacher, talking, playing, but you are actually playing as well at the same time. So everyone has a chance to really touch the keys in the same time. Of course you have to use your ear plug. But anyway, this is a new way of learning. And I think, the music teacher looks pretty cool. So, you know, it would almost look like a DJ tuning a piano orchestra.

Wow. That's pretty cool. Well, it sounds as if your work in education has really taken off!

Thank you. Yeah. We are very lucky because we get a lot of support from different groups of people, a lot of people passionate about music and art.

And this album has so many, has so much variety. In addition to traditional piano pieces, has music from film. And so it connects you to things that you may be experiencing outside music.

Yeah. We have a few of of those music from movies because, some of the melodies are so beautiful, like in Amelie movie [Yann Tiersen's] Amelie Waltz. Also Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, this is composer Sakamoto's music, it's beautiful. And there's some of my recent friend like Max Richter. It's called [The] Departure. So we have few of those.

Well so, what are you excited about? What's coming up?

So the next big thing for me is the Goldberg Variations by Bach. And I'm going to play recital over, starting, next year, spring of next year. So that's kind of like one of my biggest childhood dreams, to play the Goldberg Variation. So that's the next biggest challenge.