Two sides of the Lang Lang story in and OUT of the heart-wrenching DO OR DIE Documentary

First, here’s the documentary that drew my admiration for a Chinese pianist who suffered childhood adversity and abuse, yet triumphed, carving out a career most would never dream of.

We learn that Lang Lang’s father fostered an “almost lunatic competitive environment,” according to the narrator. At the age of 2, the toddler was already regimented to practice with structured breaks and returns to the instrument in a point reward system. We watch years of the pianist’s life unfold in the grips of a premeditated paternal agenda–a psychological pounding of BEING FIRST drummed into the child from day one.

At times events skewed by the parent even encompass life and death turns.

The Beijing chapter

A relocation to cosmopolitan Beijing from the native sleeper town of Shenyang, brings a mice-infested flat in the slums, and an audition with a private teacher who denounces the prodigy as a loser. She screams at the child (age 9) with ear-piercing invalidation. “You should go back to your second class city because you’ll never make it as a pianist.” She denounces him as a “potato head” and abysmal “failure.”

Against this sociopathic backdrop that includes a physically absent mother, we’re wooed to follow Lang Lang through a maze of personal challenges that test his will to survive.

Thankfully, some tension-relieving moments provide glimpses of Lang Lang’s early cartoon-watching — Tom and Jerry inspired his passion for the piano, especially in the “Cat Concerto” feature, a heart-warming insert.

***

After watching the entire documentary three times, I took profuse notes and snatched quotes from Daniel Barenboim, pianist/conductor, Gary Graffman (Lang Lang’s teacher at Curtis) and music director, Christoph Eschenbach. Collectively, they resonated with admiration for the pianist’s innate musicality, spontaneity, and astounding technique:

Barenboim: “He has extraordinary facility, and very unusual sensitivity to harmonic and mood changes.”

Graffman: “I knew immediately that he was a major talent, (at the age of 14) and was happy to have worked with him for five years.”

Graffman’s study with Vladimir Horowitz filtered into lessons with Lang Lang, as he focused on the singing tone and taught the youngster how the vocalist’s breath was central to expressive music-making. (one can easily hear Lang Lang’s well-synchronized breathing into fluid phrases)

Eschenbach remembered hearing Lang Lang in a gathering arranged by Graffman.

“From the first note, I was fascinated… I felt immensely moved that a 17-year old could have such deep insight into the center of the music and what the music wanted to say.” (Rada Bukhman, pianist, teacher, and author, Discovering Color Behind the Keys: The Essence of the Russian School of Piano Playing, heard Lang Lang perform at this very life juncture. “I was very impressed, he was absolutely natural…the music flowed from his heart)

Playing for Eschenbach was a pivotal “breakthrough” for the young musician. Five days later (in 1999) the conductor booked him for an appearance at the Millennium Scala of the Ravinia Festival, playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concert in Bb minor. Other major symphonies immediately courted the young pianist, propelling his career into high
gear.

Lang Lang’s Carnegie Hall debut at age 21, in 2003, was another peak musical accomplishment. His concert was well-reviewed, and midway through his performance the pianist honored his father in this heart-warming duet.

***

Yet with all the glitter and glamour enveloping the pianist, music commentators have injected an over-inflated EGO into their criticism of his playing. They’ve insisted that Lang Lang is far too emotive, and over-“expressive,” adding their displeasure with his extra-musical face-making.

Other detractors find fault with the “commercialization” of a career that started out on the right foot but has seemingly gone awry.

One particular email I received nearly a year ago, gave credence to the controversy surrounding a looming musical figure who has inspired 40 million kids to take up the piano in China. For that alone, Lang Lang deserves piano ambassador status.

Yet here in the US, piano sales are declining with a well-reputed company like Steinway and Sons having sold out to private Wall Street interests.

In China, piano manufacture is skyrocketing.

***
Amidst a whir of PR surrounding a pianist who has ignited interest in the piano among the Chinese youth; who has played in the Olympic spotlight with flashing, multicolored beams, and who’s been the star attraction at the Queens Jubilee concert, any criticism of the pianist and his career choices can be weighed and measured accordingly.

Seymour Bernstein’s comments about the pianist form a category that epitomize the essence of anti-Lang Lang sentiment.

A pianist, teacher, composer, NYU faculty member, and celebrated author of WITH YOUR OWN TWO HANDS, Seymour forwarded a copy of his letter to Marilyn C. Nonken, NYU administrator, after she had announced ticket availability for “A Conversation with Lang Lang,” taking place at the 92nd Street Y. (2012)

Nonken’s note to NYU students and faculty bearing an attached flyer, read as follows:

“Every so often we put on an event that goes down in history… a conversation on stage where audiences get a rare glimpse into the mind of a person who is currently shaping our world. Our October 14th event falls into this category because we are bringing Lang Lang on our stage to offer music lovers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about him as a person… how he thinks, how he works, and what moves him.”

image001

Bernstein’s personal response was immediate before he drafted a substantial email to NYU principles.

“To be blunt about it, this outraged me!”

He subsequently forwarded what he’d sent to Dr. Nonken, and Robert Howe, Ph.D., Chair of NYU’s Dept of Music/Performing Arts Professions:

“Marilyn, I see that this notice is signed “Holly,” and also has Robert Howe’s name attached to it. Do they, and the SONY Corp. actually think that Lang Lang is “shaping the world?” The bazaar photo of him with the banner “92Y TALKS” across it, bespeaks the antithesis of true art. I spend a lot of time with my serious students and colleagues discussing the pros and cons of Lang Lang’s playing and his subsequent success…

“He is, of course, a formidable pianist. And I have heard him play gorgeously at the early stage of his career, his absurd physical movements on stage, notwithstanding. But in my opinion, he has fallen from grace, so to speak, and caters now to audiences with vulgar tastes, as do certain rock stars. As such, I feel that the course he has chosen in his career is to be avoided, and not emulated.

“What in fact can our students learn from such a virtuoso who places glitter, speed, and extroversion above the essence of what we have come to believe is musical art?

“On the other hand, artists like Daniel Barenboim, Richard Goode, and Murray Perahia, just to mention three world-renowned artists, actually do “shape the world.” Bring them onto the stage, and we will learn something vital from them, something to be emulated.

“The other thing is that Lang Lang is one of the richest musicians alive. If he wanted to contribute something to higher education, he should donate this appearance to the faculty and students at NYU. I find it outrageous that one has to buy tickets to such an event.

“Finally, it would be unfair to blame his management, his personal representatives, and the SONY Corporation for the vulgar hype they have circulated about Lang Lang. After all, they make fortunes of money on him. The blame rests squarely with Lang Lang, who has allowed them to advertise him as though he were a freak in a side show.”

One of Seymour’s students who encountered Lang Lang at a recording session, voiced a similar opinion:

“Bravo to you for your response, Seymour. I’m sure you recall that I spent nine hours turning pages for Lang Lang at a recording session at Sony. I can personally
say that your remarks about him are spot-on. I was entirely unimpressed by him both as a pianist and a human being. His arrogance and inconsiderateness aside, I was entirely appalled by his lack of musical taste and his total lack of seriousness as a musician….

“The idea of an institution of higher education endorsing such a musician is, as you said, an outrage…

“I sincerely hope that the blurb from the flyer, claiming that he has “conquered the classical music world,” turns out not to be prophetic. While there is nothing inherently wrong with commercial success as a musician, Lang Lang does indeed represent the exploitation of virtuosity and vulgar musical taste. The danger is simply that, thanks to media “hype,” many people with little exposure to classical music hear Lang Lang and assume he is the apotheosis of musicianship. If he succeeds as being recognized as the preeminent pianist of his generation, than he will indeed have changed the world… for the worse.”

***

The portrait of this high profile pianist, therefore, can be altered in one form or another depending on the gaze of commentators.

But having offered readers more than one side of the Lang Lang story, I’m sure they’ll come to their own conclusion about his artistry and place in music history.

Surely the heart-wrenching documentary, Do or Die is a must see in the company of more than one handkerchief.

****

LINK
Comments on Lang Lang, his artistry, personality, and influence at Pianoworld.com

http://www.pianoworld.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/2125403/3.html

About Shirley Kirsten

International piano teacher by Skype, recording artist, composer, piano finder, freelance writer, film maker, story teller: Grad of the NYC HS of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU (Master of Arts) Studies with Lillian Freundlich and Ena Bronstein; Master classes with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. Studios in BERKELEY and EL CERRITO, California; Member, Music Teachers Assoc. of California, MTAC; Distance learning and Skyped instruction with supplementary videos: SKYPE ID, shirleypiano1 Contact me at: shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com OR http://www.youtube.com/arioso7 or at FACEBOOK: Shirley Smith Kirsten, http://facebook.com /shirley.kirsten TWITTER: http://twitter.com/arioso7 Private fund-raising for non-profits as pianist--Public Speaking re: piano teaching and creative approaches
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25 Responses to Two sides of the Lang Lang story in and OUT of the heart-wrenching DO OR DIE Documentary

  1. Most interesting. It leaves me wondering whether millions of new people being introduced to a “lesser form” of classical music is not far better than none at all. How is Lang Lang any different from Andre Rieu and the punk violinist Nigel Kennedy and pianist James Rhodes for instance. The classical music world has suffered from it’s own sense of it’s noble artistry and it really is good to see the barriers being broken down no matter how badly the old guard regards it.

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    • I think I agree with you, Robin. Notice that I didn’t take sides, but keenly registered my admiration for Lang Lang at the outset. The Carnegie Hall concert was gorgeous. I think once you watch the docu, it becomes clear than many of the pianist’s detractors are green with envy. What else is new?. I will, say, however that I am NOT a follower or admirer of Andre Rieu, PERIOD! And his parading out a so-called violin prodigy at a tender age, was in my opinion, exploitative and not in the best interests of the child’s development. Rieu and Lang Lang are in opposing leagues. One in the Big, the other way down on the roster–at least from my perspective.

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  2. Fran says:

    Thank you for posting this video Shirely! It was touching, to say the least, to know what Lang Lang has gone through to get where he is today. I will be sure to share this with my students. Sincerely, Fran from NJ

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  3. Rich O'Donoghue says:

    I can only say that for me LL plays more beautifully than any other.
    I am no expert (although orchestral music is my passion) , but if LL can inspire many others to become intereted in the piano, I find it hard to accept the (pompus) criticism of him.
    Rick

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    • I agree. Looks what’s happening to piano in this country. Piano row has lost Beethoven’s, will lose Steinway Hall, and the digital pianos are celebrating. (I blogged about this) Interest in the acoustic piano is declining. This is the sad truth and knowing a piano emissary is spreading the WORD that a journey through the piano literature is a vital part of life and growth is to be commended. Better than all these NBA and NFL athletes grabbing the spotlight and earning hero status, if not megabucks. Let’s get REAL.

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  4. Robin says:

    You are a gem Shirley and I look forward to every post you make.

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    • Thank you. You’ve made my night! This one’s an all nighter!

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      • Fran says:

        I second the motion, Shirley, you are a precious gem!

        I have already shared the link with all of my students, and one former adult student watched the Lang Lang movie and wrote me, saying it was phenomenal.

        Love your posts and inspirations! Keep them coming!

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  5. What I just posted at Pianoworld.com re: Lang Lang (who seems to have detractors on this forum)
    “My feeling about Lang Lang, is that given our climate here in the US with Mega NBA and NFL athletes grabbing the spotlight, being instant role models for sports crazed kids, et al, it is a welcome relief to see a pianist packing in throngs, indoor and outdoor. Watching piano row lose Beethovens, and then up the street, Steinway Hall (a bastion of tradition), plus noting the digital piano revolution, etc, why not celebrate a pianist who may be commercialized, but is getting the word out that studying piano is a good, healthy, creative endeavor. I have to give him credit, and frankly, his Carnegie Hall debut was for me, exhilarating. Sure, like other performing pianists, his every performance is not going to be a homer (sorry for the sports metaphor), but if Barenboim (one of my idols) and Graffman can celebrate Lang Lang’s artistry, I’m not embarrassed to join the chorus of admirers. Good for him, that he’s a financial success as well. If the hoop masters can earn gezillions, why not a pianist.”

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    • Fran says:

      I completely agree. And after watching the movie, I have more respect for Lang Lang and his artistry. And yes, if Barenboim and Graffman can admire him, I will also join in. I am happy that he successfull and also giving back to society with the school in China and also his aid to those who are less privileged by granting them piano instruction- especially in light of cut backs in the arts in the schools!

      I have lost so many students to sports and there is anything I can do about it. The sports also requires so much more time and dedication than their weekly piano lesson and daily practice. Gosh if the students gave as much to their piano as their sports the world would be a different place!

      I think Lang Land is promoting a shift in consciouness for the masses. He is on the right track in promoting renewed interest and awareness in piano. This is excellent!

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      • Wouldn’t it be great if there were the same increase in piano sales, and piano students here in the US as transpires in China? I agree with you on the sports obsession, and yet can’t parents figure out that to be a pianist involves an athletic ingredient as well as the soulful, introspective, and intellectual energy that combines to proliferate neurotransmitters and endorphins. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to shift lessons to accommodate soccer and swim schedules. Those are NUMERO UNO and our endeavor is second banana to the coach’s rigid roster of competitive MEETS. Don’t dare ask the big guy to reschedule for a piano lesson, or you might be sent to Siberia, or even better, Beijing.

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      • Fran says:

        Shirley, you put my sentiments in writing so well!

        Gosh, the swim & dive meets and practices leading up them, has left my students exhausted both mentally and physically this summer! And they are unprepared for their lessons due to the intense demand put on them by their coaches and can barely remember how to play their scales! Also tennis and basketball has come into play this summer, and the piano students are spending 4 to 5 hours a day getting ready for the Fall. It is insane! Only one student went to a piano camp and was thrilled playing 4-5 hours a day piano! There is hope!

        It would be incredibly wonderful if there was the same interest in piano here as in China now! Come on Lang Lang! We are cheering for you!

        Cannot parents see how taking piano lessons can help their children to develop on so many levels and something that they will have with them their entire lives? Their creative side is vital in today’s society and it will help with their college skills too, no matter what they choose to do. We would have a gentler more caring generation if more children played an instrument. The expressive nature developed in learning an instrument is invaluable.

        Thanks again Shirley for your feedback. As you see I could go on and on, as this is a hot topic!

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  6. There’s a blog incubating about this sport-centered MADNESS… You’re right about how the pure physical exhaustion invades piano lessons..Better to have the swim meet follow than precede.
    You can smell the chlorine—-insipidly invading the upholstery–if not the wool of hammers. Those butterflies and breast strokes tax the wrists and forearms.. Go thee to the pool, and be done with it!!!

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  7. I must be one of the rare folk who are both a mad keen surfer and sports fan and recently a mad keen pianist after years of being a mad keen classical guitarist. I am sure there are many others of course and if that is so then why can there not be millions who feel and engage in both activities in the same way. Clearly some scientist somewhere needs to discover, and bring to the notice of the world, the revolutionary idea that engaging in becoming a practising classical musician enhances ones ability as a sportsperson leading to a more balanced and productive life!
    Just finished watching the Lang Lang movie. I don’t think I have come across another musician who so brilliantly manages the difficult terrain between wholly expressing the music whilst still maintaining some distance in order to actually play it. It was telling that even as a young boy, playing the Tchaikovsky, the way you see the emotions move across his face today, as an adult, was occurring. Those expressive eyebrows for instance. The Bach was further proof as he toned down the emotional delivery with a clear acknowledgement of the spiritual context in which it was written and allowing that great music to impact. But the killer proof for me that this guy really does feel the music deeply is that I find myself almost in sync with him as the emotions pass across his face as I watch and listen too!

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  8. Robin, I’m a JOCK.. I love sports.. I live and breathe music and sports. No one is particularly saying that an interest or participation in sports rules out a commitment to classical music or any other genre. In fact, as mentioned the athletic component of piano playing is REAL and pervasive. Lang Lang has the physical, musical and emotional gifts all wrapped together in a pleasing bundle. He wouldn’t be who he is without his amazing technical facility, and I carefully observe this aspect of his playing while appreciating a visceral phrasing and expression that is nothing short of superb. When I talk about the sports obsession that we piano teachers encounter, it’s usually at the expense of practicing, and embracing a step by step learning process. Parents over-expose kids to a host of extra-curriculars where they SKIM the surface. That’s the objection. Imagine if Lang Lang was running around to tennis lessons, then soccer practice, then swimming, and Lord knows what else, he would not have become LANG Lang the amazing pianist, not that we expect our students to be Lang Langs in progress. We just want them to develop to their potential and ENJOY the fruits of consistent baby step learning. END of Lecture! and then we have the FUN-loving parents who think everything has to be FUN..and without effort.. enough said.. I’m getting redundant.

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    • I follow and play tennis.. follow and used to play BASEBALL.. Go to gym daily and do heavy workouts—the latter, esp is a boon to piano playing… so not to confuse what I say with my love of physical fitness, etc.and my desire to have physically fit and healthy piano students of all ages..

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    • Fran says:

      Well said Shirley! It is the over exposure to the endless list of sports activities to the exclusion of everything else or to the point where piano is left by the way side with no regard that teachers feel frustrated. Parents seem to think that their children will be well rounded if they do EVERYTHING! But it is a superficial exposure and results in mediocrity and never mastering one skill. All they are doing is running around from one activity to the next.

      I also keep trim and healthy, with proper eating and regular exercise, either yoga, or rowing on a machine, long walks in nature, or whatever I can fit in. A healthy body is important for a healthy mind and for the pursuit of any instrument! Balance is the key in life!

      Funny, how you said…what if Lang Lang was running around to several sports lessons! That knocked me out!

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  9. Robin says:

    Shirley Kirsten. You are my kind of girl! :-)

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