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Lang Lang: Popular classical music is great, too

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BERLIN — In a hotel in the embassy-heavy streets in the city's center, Lang Lang sits on a bright red couch, a modestly daring complement to the room's elaborate Bauhaus paneling. He has just come from a conference in Cannes where he gave a speech to the who's who of the music biz about classical music, social media and building music schools in China.

The window is open and outside, a woman shouts enthusiastically into a megaphone. Her acolytes answer her calls with equal vim. Inside the normally happy-go-lucky, 30-year-old pianist is doing some protesting of his own.

When he plays with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Hall in May, it will be Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, a piece second perhaps only to Grieg in the most-played concerto table. For core classical music fans, playing popular pieces is nothing more than pandering to the lowest common denominator.

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"I totally disagree," Lang says of this assertion. "A lot of what you call the great repertoire is popular, but that doesn't mean it's not a great work. I mean, come on. Rachmaninoff 3 is great. There shouldn't be 'If this work is so popular, then don't do it.' In the art world it is only what you feel right to perform."

He is more exasperated than angry, but at the suggestion that commercial success and artistic integrity are mutually exclusive, the nicely glowing coals burst into flames.

"I think it's totally wrong," he says, his face a mix of annoyance and incredulity. "No great artist in the world that I know will make a sacrifice to play with someone just because the name is big. I think this doesn't happen in our world. You ask Zubin Mehta, you ask Mariss Jansons, Sir Simon Rattle, Barenboim. 'Use him because he sell tickets.' Nobody says that because they don't care!"

Perhaps in his world, this is true. Lang has been on the classical A list for nearly a third of his life, and most of the artists he collaborates with probably don't have to take on projects that don't interest them to sell tickets.

"The point I must make very clearly — and this has nothing to do with myself — is I'm not saying that if you're not commercially successful it's because you aren't good enough, but you can't say that because others are commercially successful you're better because you're a real artist. The only way you can talk about this is because of one word: jealousy. I'm pretty positive about it."

The next day at an open dress rehearsal for concerts with Gustavo Dudamel and the Berliner Philharmoniker, Lang ambles onstage, sits down at the piano and gives the orchestra a G sharp. Dudamel gives the downbeat and the orchestra gets down to the business of rehearsing Bartok. In the third movement, schoolboys in the audience imitate Lang's bouncing style, only stopping when, from five or six seats away, their teacher makes it clear they bop at their peril.

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The night of the concert, the Philharmoniker is abuzz. Bartok is not the most immediately rewarding concerto for the audience, so Lang holds nothing back. His movements are more exaggerated — at one point it seems as if he is trying start a lawn mower — but it is a mistake to think it is just showboating. Lang recognizes that we hear as much with our eyes as our ears and Bartok needs bigger signposts than Mozart. The audience, enraptured, explodes.

It was the spare beauty of Mozart that got him back to the keyboard after his piano teacher kicked him out because he had no talent. At 9, Lang did the sensible thing and quit. For three months, he refused to touch a piano.

"People were begging me to [play], but I said I wasn't a musician anymore and I had given up," he recalls. "But they found the score of Mozart's Piano Sonata K.330 and they were saying, 'This is beautiful music, play for us.' Somehow I started playing and said, 'Why should I stop? This is a stupid decision.' Gradually, I started to feel connected to music again."

When some time opens up between all the piano playing, award accepting and sponsor placating, Lang likes to participate in the education projects managed by his Lang Lang International Foundation for Music. But classical music remains his first love and his passion and he speaks of it lovingly.

"It gives us a complete freeing of feelings, emotions, structures and imagination," Lang explains. "Pop artists like Alicia Keys or Lady Gaga studied classical piano before. Training in classical music gives you very solid ideas on how to build music. When you hear the music it becomes part of you and it shouldn't be too hard to understand. If that's the case, I as a Chinese would never play classical music."

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