For some listeners, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto might seem a sentimental warhorse. In the life of Xiang-Dong Kong, however, the work has become a rhapsody on a theme, with variations unfolding for him even when he was a youngster in Shanghai.
“For me to play this piece is not simply to play a concerto,” said Kong, 26, who will perform it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Sian Edwards, at the Hollywood Bowl tonight.
“In China, my mentor was Prof. Da-Lei Fan, a great teacher and great human being. We were like father and son. He died two years ago at the age of 47.
“During the Cultural Revolution he would hide away to listen to the concerto on an old LP,” Kong said at his home in Irvine last week. “It was his favorite piece. He covered the windows and doors with a blanket so that the neighbor wouldn’t hear it. He toured [as a pianist], and he always wanted to play the Rachmaninoff No. 2, but that never materialized. . . .”
So Kong is realizing his mentor’s dream?
“Yes, I think so.”
It won’t be the first time he has done so, even locally. In April, on one day’s notice--filling in when cellist Yo-Yo Ma had to cancel due to illness--he played the Rachmaninoff in four concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Just how preoccupied he is with the piece was clear as he pulled up at his home for this interview. The historic Benno Moiseiwitsch version of the concerto was blaring over the car speakers. At the door, all shoes came off, and slippers were provided. Inside, the carpets were white; in a central room, the sole contrast was a new nine-foot Steinway.
It’s a far cry from Kong’s early practice environment: Kong, like Fan, had to hide his musical interests from the Chinese authorities.
“Even though we had a little upright piano at home, I couldn’t practice on it,” Kong recalled. “My mother made a cardboard keyboard. I was 5 1/2 years old, and I would learn very simple melodies.” So he could “hear” the notes, he and his mother sang along.
As China’s attitude toward Western culture softened, Kong brought his talent out of hiding. The cardboard practice had paid off. Kong was the 11-year-old pianist who played for Isaac Stern in the 1980 documentary “From Mao to Mozart.” Kong attended the Shanghai Conservatory. At 17, while still a student, he competed in the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and went on to become its youngest prizewinner ever. He would win other competitions as well, including, in 1988, the Gina Bachauer International Competition in Salt Lake City. “I got about 100 engagements in 17 countries from the Bachauer,” Kong noted. “The Tchaikovsky, that was rubles--and that was it, you know?”
It was Bachauer founder Paul Pollei who heard Kong play on a visit to China and suggested that he enroll at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Kong arranged for a visa and passport without mentioning that he was a pianist. Had the officials known more about him, he thinks now, they would not have let him go so easily. He finished his degree at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in 1993, with his solo career already under way.
Last year, his BMG/RCA Red Seal debut album, “Tchaikovsky: Romance,” was released. In the works are another solo album, “Fantasy,” and a five-CD series of Chinese piano music. A film based on his life is also under way, a co-production of Shanghai Film Studio and Hollywood’s Miracle Pictures.
“It’s ‘Mr. Fan and Me,’ how we met and how he taught me,” Kong said. “It’s a musical drama. Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is the theme, of course.”
He dismisses his achievements as “lucky,” and he is feeling particularly fortunate these days. He and his wife, Angel, a violinist with the Pacific Symphony and a longtime resident of Irvine, first met as 9-year-olds in Shanghai; Christmas, 1993, they met again, by chance, in New York. Today they have a new baby--an 8-month-old daughter, Christina--and a new home.
Kong’s China connection remains strong. He is still a Chinese citizen and travels to his homeland often. In Beijing in 1993, for instance, Kong served as soloist for the written-by-committee “Yellow River Concerto,” the first-ever recording of Chinese music to mark $1 million in sales.
Last year Kong organized the Chinese Virtuoso Orchestra, a 34-piece string ensemble drawn from major U.S. orchestras, which performed in China; Kong played a Bach concerto. The group goes back again in December, with woodwinds and a Mozart concerto.
The connection remains strong emotionally as well. Kong offered a final variation on his life’s (and movie’s) theme, then illustrated at the keyboard.
“Whenever I play the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto, it can make my mood so dark,” Kong said. “It gives so much memory from my past. . . .
“This feeling is like a smell that comes,” he said. “If you wear a certain cologne and then in 10 years you smell it somewhere else, all the memories come fresh back. Music is like that. It can capture so much, just like a smell.”
* Xiang-Dong Kong plays with the L.A. Philharmonic tonight, Hollywood Bowl, 8:30. Information: (213) 850-2000.