If there was any doubt that the classical music world is a global village, the story of Lang Lang's appearances this month with the New York Philharmonic proves just how small a world it is. Groundwork for the 20-year-old keyboard virtuoso's October performances of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the Philharmonic‹both in Avery Fisher Hall and as soloist on the Orchestra's 2002 Citigroup Asian Tour Part II‹was laid two years ago, before Lorin Maazel was named Music Director. Coincidentally, that was when the Philharmonic's new Maestro first met the Chinese-born pianist, neither suspecting that they were soon to appear together at Avery Fisher Hall.
Zarin Mehta, then the executive director of the Ravinia Festival in Chicago and now at the Philharmonic in the same position, arranged for Lang Lang to audition for Maestro Maazel in Munich, after the 17-year-old caused a sensation at Ravinia when he stepped in for André Watts at the last minute.
Lang Lang, then a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, traveled to Germany to play for Maestro Maazel. "He gave me good advice on life and the life of a musician," says Lang Lang. Maazel knows all about prodigies. He himself had conducted most major American orchestras by age 15. "We discussed concertos for performance together," says Lang Lang. "I suggested the Tchaikovsky; Maazel liked the Rachmaninoff Second. Gershwin was also mentioned. Later, after the Maestro's appointment, came the invitation to appear with the Philharmonic."
Lang Lang feels an affinity for Rachmaninoff and other Russian composers. "Rachmaninoff is a real genius. The music is very difficult, but not impossible. Because he was a virtuoso pianist and a great composer, there are places to relax and places to gather energy."
Lang Lang, now a Curtis Institute graduate, already has the busy concert schedule of an established artist. From his teacher, Gary Graffman, Lang Lang learned the most valuable lesson of all: art requires a lifetime of learning from other musicians. "Graffman taught me the importance of digesting the music, of making it my own. He has great experience as a concert artist and he knows how to work on stage, where performance happens. I always want to continue studying new repertoire, gain new knowledge about music and the world."
Lang Lang admires today's pianists, but holds special reverence for the old masters: Sviatoslav Richter, Arthur Rubenstein, and, above all, Vladimir Horowitz, a pianist to whom he has often been compared. "Today's pianists should be inspired by great pianists of the past, one generation to another. These artists created something special onstage, yet were always true to the music."
Mario R. Mercado is research editor of Travel & Leisure magazine and author of The Evolution of Mozart's Pianistic Style.