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Lang Lang, star pianist and global citizen, will bring Chopin, other friends to Chicago recital

Submitted by on May 7, 2012 – 2:35 pm

Preview: Pianist Lang Lang performs a solo recital at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Civic Opera House, presented by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

When Chinese piano sensation Lang Lang steps onto the stage at the Civic Opera House for his recital Saturday night, it will be a special moment for everyone in the house – including the pianist.

Though an international star who’s on the road 300 days a year, playing concert halls literally everywhere, the pianist, who turns 30 in June, says he’s excited about his appearance under the auspices of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“I played at La Scala last year,” says Lang Lang in an interview with Chicago On the Aisle. “Performing in an opera house is a beautiful experience. You’re standing in the footsteps of great singers. You feel that history. You feel like you’re an opera singer.”

Yet rock star might be closer to his worldwide image. He once played to an audience of 8,000 in Beijing, and a global viewership of 5 billion saw him perform at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 summer Olympics. But Lang Lang — who uses only that mirrored name though the family name is Lang — sidesteps the issue of superstardom.

“I never think about defining myself,” he says. “I just want to do more to promote the art of the piano and help more people know about classical music.”

To that end, he established the Lang Lang International Music Foundation in 2008 to encourage children to get both their hearts and their fingers into music. On tour stops, he often sits at the piano with dozens of children at various levels of accomplishment – one at a time – to play four-hand pieces.

“I really like to inspire kids to love music,” he says, “not just to listen but to participate. There’s a huge difference between listening and actually getting involved – playing a piece. I want kids to experience that. Music is very personal. Children need to feel that.”

It’s a long, long road that brings Lang Lang to Chicago, and the pianist says his rarefied solo act might be impossible without the friendships he has cultivated the world over.

“My mother travels with me and that’s a big help,” he says. “I’ve already been touring 12 years. You need to have someone with you, otherwise you’d be really bored. But I also have friends everywhere who show me fun times. They take me to museums, to dinner, to sports events. I love soccer and basketball. I watched the Bulls and Philadelphia in the (NBA) playoffs last night on television. I was having noodles and watching the game.”

Though he maintains residences in Beijing and New York City, the pianist laughed when asked which one was really home: “I live on the road. I’m a citizen of the world.”

Lang Lang’s appearance at the Opera House marks his first Chicago recital since 2008. While noting the more personal nature of a recital compared with the team effort of a concerto performance, the pianist also observes that playing alone implies greater artistic freedom as well. He brings to Chicago three major works that lie close to his heart: Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat, Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat, D. 960, and Chopin’s Etudes, Op. 25.

Bach, says the pianist, is nothing less than the foundation for generations of keyboard composers who came after him: “It’s true for Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms. Name any great composer and you will find his approach to writing for the piano is rooted in Bach.”

Schubert’s epic Sonata, D. 960, was his last work in that genre, written shortly before his death in 1828 at age 31.

“The second movement is one of the most touching moments for the piano,” Lang Lang says. “It is emotionally precise and comes from a deep place in the composer’s heart. You hear the sensibility of Schubert the great composer of song.”

The Chopin Etudes are mother’s milk to Lang Lang. He first played both sets of Etudes, the Op. 25 and its companion Op. 10, at age 13.

“All of them are very poetic,” he says. “They really are like reading poetry. Chopin transforms literary sentences into musical phrases. You sense the pulse and the breathing. You feel the melodies in your heart.”

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Photo captions and credits: Images of Lang Lang: Home page and top: In a quiet moment off-stage. (Photo by Philip Glaser) Descending: Portrait of the pianist as a young man. (Photo by Detlef Schneider) Reflecting at the piano. Below: Drawing song from the keyboard. (Photos by Marco Borggreve)


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