The Great Bridge to China: An Interview with Lang Lang

Classical Music Features   The Great Bridge to China: An Interview with Lang Lang
This fall, Carnegie Hall's Ancient Paths, Modern Voices will celebrate Chinese culture through a series of over 30 events presented across New York City. World-renowned pianist Lang Lang recently discussed his Chinese roots and the upcoming festival.


China's hold on the world's imagination has never been greater than it is today. This remarkable nation finds itself at an important historical moment, inspiring an abundance of cultural activities by artists both within and outside of its borders. Ancient Paths, Modern Voices : Carnegie Hall's celebration of Chinese culture in October and November : pays tribute to China's influence around the globe. This citywide festival features leading Chinese musicians, including programs created in collaboration with world-renowned pianist and cultural ambassador Lang Lang.

With 30 events presented across New York City, the festival offers insights into a world that mixes the ancient and the modern, the traditional and the cutting edge.

Lang Lang recently sat down for an interview with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall's Director of Artistic Programming. The two discussed Lang Lang's Chinese roots and the upcoming festival honoring his home country.


Why do you think it's important that Carnegie Hall presents a festival focusing on Chinese music?

Lang Lang: I must say, when I heard that Carnegie Hall would like to have a festival about China, I got so excited. Carnegie Hall always does incredible, creative programming from around the globe, and last season was such a success with the Berlin in Lights festival. And then I had a wonderful conversation with everyone in Carnegie Hall's artistic staff, and we started talking about ideas. From the beginning, I thought this project would be unique, very creative, and very fresh. It's truly a great honor to be a part of it.

What do you hope New York audiences take away from the festival?

Lang Lang: I think this festival will encourage interest in Chinese music. First of all, Carnegie Hall is the most prestigious music hall in the world, and for it to promote Chinese music is already one level up. Also, as a Chinese person, I must say that my native land has really progressed in an enormous way in different areas, particularly in the performing arts. There are currently 40 million kids learning piano, 25 million kids learning violin, another 10 million learning other instruments: that's 75 million kids learning music. There is an enormous passion for music: classical music: and there are incredible people coming up from all over China. This festival at Carnegie Hall will provide a new perspective for audiences in New York, but it will also be a platform for many unknown or new Chinese artists to perform on the stage. It's not only Chinese artists who are going to participate in this project. There will be other great artists who live in Europe and in America, making this a truly international event.

Being from a country with a rich cultural history all its own, were you always interested in the piano?

Lang Lang: Since my father played the Chinese violin, the erhu, I tried it out when I was a kid, but I never succeeded. One time he was trying to teach me, but all I produced was a sound like a donkey. So I thought I should switch instruments.

How is that passion for the piano or other Western instruments nurtured in China: particularly for those students who hope to follow in your footsteps?

Lang Lang: In the West, you have many people who grew up in Europe, and they have this tradition passed from one generation to another. In China, the problem is that we don't have this same level of exposure to the West. I think that if you are studying Western music, you have to go to the US or Europe to really understand it. You need to have a mentor who knows this wonderful tradition. That is what China is missing. It would certainly be a great thing if more teachers from the West would come to China more often: not only to Beijing and Shanghai, but everywhere. This is what I try to do every time I'm back: spend two hours in each city where I'm performing to talk or teach about music. I think it's an effort we all need to make.

Conversely, you've been instrumental in introducing contemporary Chinese music to Western audiences. How would you say that the influence of traditional Chinese music on contemporary Chinese composers relates to American audiences?

Lang Lang: As we all know, China is a pretty big country, and it also has 5,000 years of history, so there are many elements. It's very interesting. Even to me, as a Chinese person, there are always new things I discover every day. When you read a book, when you see a Peking opera, even when you're just watching a Chinese movie, there are always new traditions and new lifestyles that you can adopt from what you have seen and heard. Of course, traditional Chinese music is not written for the piano (or Western instruments). But recently, in the last hundred years, the piano has become quite popular in China, so many of the composers started adapting all of those traditional melodies and creating new pieces for Western instruments like piano, violin, cello, clarinet, and so on. As we all know, during the Cultural Revolution it was forbidden to Westernize music in China; that was a long and very difficult time. But one extremely interesting thing was, right after the Cultural Revolution ended, when the Central Conservatory in Beijing reopened to the public (in the late '70s), there was a really impressive list of composers who went to the conservatory in that first year: Tan Dun, Chen Qigang, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Ye Xiaogang. Those are the music masters of modern China. They came with their brilliant ideas and had incredible success in the West. In this festival, we will do both: We will do traditional music on Western instruments while also inviting Chinese folk musicians to play on their original instruments, and we will have new commissions by those wonderful Chinese composers.

And what is the greater context for this festival from a cultural perspective?

Lang Lang: I've got to say that this project has helped so much. China has great talents. I think things like Ancient Paths, Modern Voices will give them a bit of attention around the globe. This will open many of the young Chinese talents to new experiences, and also at the same time open the door to the great musicians and maestros who live here in the West. This is truly a new bridge between Chinese and Western music, and also between Chinese music and Western audiences.


Carnegie Hall's Ancient Paths, Modern Voices features 21 days of events and exhibitions throughout New York City from October 21 through November 10, 2009.

In addition to his appearances at Carnegie Hall, Lang Lang also performs in Costa Mesa, California, when the Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival is presented at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts from October 15 to November 24, 2009. Visit for more information.

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