All flash and no substance?

Times Staff Writer

These days, the best way to start a punching match among musical highbrows may be to bring up the young Chinese-born pianist Lang Lang. He's either what full-page ads call "the future of classical music" or, as one critic fears, "the new Liberace."

At the tender age of 21, the exuberant Lang, wildly popular with audiences and at the receiving end of an enormous star-making push, is well on his way to becoming classical music's most divisive figure.

Talk to a music professor or a serious music fan and chances are he or she will knock Lang -- who comes to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday for three sold-out shows with the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- as flashy, plastic or consumed by his own PR.

"I don't know any long-term collectors who really like him," says Tower Records clerk Eric Warwick. "But he's getting this huge hype."

Pick up a newspaper or magazine and the story is often the same. While many critics praise Lang for his energy or virtuosity, others, like the New York Times' Anthony Tommasini, disdain his "incoherent, self-indulgent and slam-bang crass" playing. That's what Tommasini wrote of a November Carnegie Hall recital that is selling fast as a two-CD set on the august Deutsche Gramophone label, which signed Lang to a five-year deal during an era of belt-tightening.

Lang, who blows kisses to audiences and plays with a swooning, perhaps distracting, physicality while staring heavenward, is more than just demonized. He's become a symbol -- his name a kind of shorthand for what ails his art form. He's invoked the same way serious rock fans use "Britney Spears" or cineastes talk dismissively about "Charlie's Angels 2": as a way of describing a world gone wrong.

In a year-in-review story in December, for instance, Tommasini lamented "the cult of personality that seems to be in resurgence, which is exemplified by Lang Lang."

Even the pianist's earliest critical champion, the Chicago Tribune's John von Rhein, turned him into a symbol of decline after reviewing a performance in 2002.

Not only did the critic "come away dismayed and saddened" by the concert, with its "choreographic nonsense" and its "clap-along transcription of 'Stars and Stripes Forever,' " but Von Rhein also penned an essay weeks later in which Lang was guilty of more than just a bad show.

Music, he wrote, "was being used as a pretext for self-indulgent exhibitionism." Lang and the "musically illiterate" audience that leaped to its feet were symbols of "America's cultural devolution," the ovation "a sign that the traditional checks and balances that once ruled classical music no longer apply."

Serious music, he went on, has opened the door for "a Madonna or an Ozzy Osborne." Musicians and others have compared Lang to J. Lo and Spears.

Despite the suspicion that he was somehow "made" by the music industry -- a kind of classical Monkees -- he was actually produced by a process as close to genetic engineering as is legally possible.

By the time of his birth, in Manchuria in 1982, he'd already been marinated in classical music in the womb. His mother and father were both frustrated performers -- their careers were decreed by the state -- who transmitted their dreams to their son. Before he'd turned 2, they had spent half their annual income to buy him a piano; he began formal lessons at 3 and was performing concerts at 5.

When the boy was 9, Lang's father quit his job and moved a dozen hours away from his wife so their son could study in Beijing, where father and son rode to school on an old bike and lived off food subsidies.

Then, as a 15-year-old, Lang moved with his father to the U.S. so he could attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

His rapid career ascent began in 1999, when he stepped in for Andre Watts to perform Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Besides drawing a standing ovation, the 17-year-old Lang was soon dubbed by Von Rhein "the biggest, most exciting young keyboard talent I have encountered in many a year of attending piano recitals."

But Lang's very childhood had already given people reason to hate him. The tale of a musician with limited life experience and incredible technique tapped into a long-standing phobia: the fear that prodigies, especially Asian ones, are automatons.

These young musicians playing very old music go against the image of a soul who's wandered through the woods, as in a bildungsroman, accumulating depth and insight before tackling major works. Listeners have a wariness about heavily promoted kids, says UCLA musicologist Robert Fink, some of it fueled by a suspicion of the Suzuki method of instruction.

Americans often assume that Asian musicians don't evolve naturally, through an emotional understanding of the music or their own souls, Fink says, noting that "ever since 1964, when [educator Shinichi] Suzuki brought his traveling roadshow to the United States, people associate a very small Asian child playing better than you think she ought to with this 'brainwashing, mechanical robotic' thing."

Some of the skepticism that's greeting Lang also accompanied his idol, Vladimir Horowitz, whom legendary music critic Virgil Thomson described as "a master of musical distortion."

But the phenomenon Lang represents really began with the arrival of Liszt -- so charismatic that women swooned and tossed jewels onstage when he performed. Dashing, with long blond locks, this Hungarian virtuoso, born in 1811 and already a darling of Paris salons in his teens, had an arsenal of dramatic mannerisms, from posing exaggeratedly at the keyboard to altering compositions to suit himself.

Liszt's success "sparked the bravura school of the 19th century, to the distress of the musically virtuous," critic Harold Schonberg wrote in "The Great Pianists."

"Piano playing became an orgy, and the serious old-time musicians clucked about it like a flock of hens.... After Liszt's performance in Berlin in 1842, he was transported by a carriage drawn by six white horses ... and hundreds of private coaches."

It was only later that the idea of a pianist's role as objective interpreter reigned, with pianists such as Josef Hoffman, as the 19th century became the 20th.

Yet even while this more austere tradition developed, it didn't compel audiences like the bravura style. The musician who inherited Liszt's matinee-idol mantle, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, was followed by a Beatlemania-like mob of young women even while he was assailed by cultural gatekeepers.

Schonberg writes that in 1916, one critic observed in a Los Angeles paper "that if he were still teaching piano he would forbid his students to attend a Paderewski recital."

Lang, similarly, is the rare classical artist who electrifies general audiences. Some of his rise does, indeed, follow the contours of pop celebrity; he employs the same public relations firm as Norah Jones and Bruce Springsteen.

He also has a small army of managers and publicists, and newspaper and magazine ads tout his prowess. He's appeared on Jay Leno, provided the music for a scene in the "Joan of Arcadia" television series and even been hailed in Teen People magazine.

Venice magazine, a journal with no demonstrated commitment to classical music, will host a reception for him tomorrow at a chic Westside hotel.

But the tradition of showboats predates the tradition of fidelity and virtue, Fink says.

"When classical music stepped out of the church, in the middle 17th century," he says, "the virtuoso and the athletic aspects become important, and you get this moralistic battle" -- with resistance from those who see the music as deep or holy.

"It was the other role, the Schnabel or Glenn Gould, the intellectual and withdrawn kind of performer, that was anomalous," Fink says. "It was the natural expectation that everyone would be like Lang Lang."

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