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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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