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World-class pianist Lang Lang on evolving as a musician and growing his foundation

Time off has allowed the classical virtuoso to mull over the past, present and future.

He is a superstar pianist and classical music wunderkind.

A flamboyant dresser with an alabaster complexion and K-pop idol hair, Lang Lang has performed for kings, queens, presidents and other dignitaries.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his possessed playing enthralled a global audience of nearly four billion. The next year, Time magazine included him in its list of 100 Most Influential People In The World.

Dressed in an all-black ensemble set off by a tan belt and matching shoes, the 36-year-old is holding court in a function room at Hanoi’s historic Sofitel Legend Metropole.

An ambassador for Swiss luxury watchmaker Hublot since 2015, he has just officiated at the opening of the brand’s first boutique in Vietnam.

He rubs his chin thoughtfully when asked if Lang Lang today is the same man he was a decade ago.

“I’m older and have experienced life more,” he says. “When you’re younger, you want to be the fastest and to have the best technique.

“Now, I feel I don’t need to show off my technique. Now, it’s all about how to make a piece more emotional.”

He has been reflecting on his life a fair bit of late. A bad case of tendonitis (inflammation of the tendons) in his left arm had offered a year’s respite from a punishing schedule of travelling and performing.

“The year off was good. I had more time to relax and date, which was good,” says the bachelor.

“I did a lot administrative work and conducted masterclasses for my foundation,” he adds, referring to the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, which he set up in 2008 to nurture and inspire a new generation of music lovers and performers.

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He adds that he wants to grow his foundation and add new schools and programmes.

Self-reflection, he says, is good for the soul – his time off has allowed him to mull over the past, present and future.

“Our past is important. I’m Chinese and I’m re-learning a lot of poems from the Tang and Song dynasties and re-reading a lot of classic Chinese novels.

“There’s so much knowledge out there. The more we know, the better we become. It’s like great red wine – the older it gets, the better it is, as long as it has a good beginning.”

Meanwhile, the present is for living and learning, he says.

“As for the future, you have to plan. But you also have to bear in mind that changes can occur and you have to accommodate them.”

A decade from now, he is certain he will be married with a family.

“When you have a family, it will be a different ball game. Life will change.”

It is already changing for him.

“I’m already cutting down on my concert performances by 40 per cent. That is a tremendous cut for someone who is addicted to the stage,” he says with a laugh.

But one thing will not change.

“I still want to remain a good pianist. I don’t want to achieve other things, but become a bad player.”

His concert last Friday at the Hanoi Opera House, a l06-year-old building modelled on the Opera Garnier in Paris, marks his return to the international performing circuit.

Organised as part of the Hublot Loves Art programme, the show also featured 12-year-old Peter Leung from Hong Kong, who is a scholar from Lang’s foundation.

Lang, a Shenyang native, had wanted to be a piano virtuoso since he was two years old, when he caught an episode of the cartoon, Tom And Jerry, and saw the duo playing Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

At age three, he started lessons and, at five, gave his first public recital after winning the Shenyang Piano Competition.

Determined to give his son a head start, his policeman father gave up his job and took his son to Beijing, hoping to get him into the vaunted Central Conservatory of Music.

His mother stayed on to work in Shenyang. To save money for lessons, father and son lived in dingy rooms in slums.

When a teacher told Lang – who had to practise 10 hours a day – he had no talent, his father passed him a bottle of antibiotics and told him to kill himself. The traumatised boy started beating the walls, trying to destroy his hands.

In numerous past interviews, the pianist said he and his father went momentarily crazy. They have long made peace with each other.

Under another professor, Lang made it to the Beijing’s Central Conservatory when he was nine. From then, his life unfolded like a dream, only at lightning speed.

Among the many highlights: first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Japan at 13, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, United States at 15, the release of the first of his many albums at 18, two dozen concertos under his belt by 20 and the first classical artist to sell out at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 48 hours at the age of 30.

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His professional success spilled into other areas. He has his own perfume and headphones and his Lang Lang Piano Academy has also released a range of books and materials for pianists of all levels.

Then, there is his collaboration with Hublot, which explains his presence in Hanoi to launch the boutique, a venture between the Swiss brand and exclusive distributor The Hour Glass S&S.

Hublot and Lang Lang, he says, are not strange bedfellows.

“Classical music and watch-making are timeless and grounded in tradition. We respect what has been done in the past, but we also want to chart something new.

“I’m trying to do that in classical music and Hublot is trying to do that with watch-making,” he says, referring to the watch brand’s penchant for ground-breaking technology and use of new materials.

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Since coming on board as ambassador, he has inspired two new models: the Classic Fusion Tourbillon Cathedral Minute Repeater Carbon Lang Lang and a Classic Fusion 45mm Ceramic Ultra-Thin Lang Lang.

The first watch sounds the hours and minutes with the tone of a cathedral double gong.

Music will always be a mainstay in his life, he says.

“I was not social as a kid. In fact, I was shy. But when I started making music and playing the piano, I started making friends.

“You play a song, everyone starts singing with you and, in that moment, you become friends.

“Through music, the world can become more peaceful and harmonious. That’s the beautiful power of being a musician.”

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This story was originally published in The Straits Times.

Photo: Lang Lang