Lang Lang: when a classical musician hits world celebrity status

The BBC made a documentary on the Chinese pianist Lang Lang a few months ago, and it was fascinating watching. Lang Lang has become something of a legend. He is only just 30 years old and he has fame that is reserved more for pop stars than for classical musicians. In China he is mobbed in the streets. Music schools are named after him, and there are now 40 million Chinese pianists who have been inspired by him to take up the piano. Maybe they are all wannabe Lang Langs? Maybe they feel that by learning the piano and practicing very, very hard, they have a chance to have a career, along with the money and fame that Lang Lang has?

He is really an incredible pianist and I admire his utter commitment to the music and his performance of that music. He sometimes gets the critics backs up because he flouts convention, coming down on the side of show when convention says he should be a bit more respectful, a bit more ‘serious’. He is a showman, a true performer, arguably the most pianistic showman since Franz Liszt made the ladies faint in the 19th century. He digs deep for his own emotional interpretation of the music and it doesn’t always sit well with the musical establishment. I like that about Lang Lang – he just goes for it.

I saw him recently giving a masterclass in Oxford. The BBC was filming, so the auditorium was packed. He had some good ideas and certainly took over the stage with his inimitable performing presence. The pianists who played for him were wonderful: talented, impressively proficient and highly skilled, each only six or seven years younger than Lang Lang himself and well on their way to international success themselves.

The masterclass ended and the mobbing started, English style, Oxford style. He was surrounded by a group of people just wanting to be near him, politely wanting his autograph. His minders were guarding him protectively, trying to get him out of the Sheldonian theatre, into a car and off to catch a plane. He looked bewildered and just a little lonely. I felt for him – it can’t be easy being that famous.

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