Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An Insult at the White House

So Lang Lang played at the White House state dinner for Chinese Communist leader Hu Jin-Tao.

As an encore, Lang played a Chinese song, My Motherland, and instantly became a hero to people in China. My Motherland is a song from the 1956 film Battle on Shangganling, a film (as well as the song Lang played) that vilified the Americans and their role in the Korean War.

Hu must have been laughing when he heard the song, because of its highly anti-American stance. Why the Obama administration would choose to honour the leader of the Chinese dictatorship in such an elaborate fashion is a mystery. It is surprising that the White House, which usually plans its event down to the last detail, would not have vetted Lang’s programme beforehand. Perhaps the encore was a spontaneous decision.

Ever since he burst upon the world of classical music, Lang has been changing our image of a “concert pianist.” From his embrace of the latest technology in performances to his wardrobe, Lang has been attracting much of the world’s attention to himself, if not to the music he purportedly loves. According to Lang, he wants to make use of technology to bring classical music to a wider audience – a commendable idea. But his antics at and away from the keyboard seem to suggest otherwise.

When playing My Motherland at the White House, Lang writes, according to one news source, that it felt like he was “telling them about the power of China and the unity of the Chinese.”

Lang Lang himself benefits from his American education at the Curtis Institute of Music, and he enjoys the privilege (and it is a privilege) of living in a free society. I am certain that a significant portion of his concert fees and recording royalties come from America. This is a great way to repay his benefactor.

Politics aside, though, Lang has also violated, in my view, one of the basic tenet that a musician, an artist, should abide by, namely that he or she puts his or her talent at the service of the composer. When Lang uses his music to convey a political message, whether or not it was his intent, he has sunk to the level of the countless composers and poets, now thankfully forgotten, who churned out odes and cantatas to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.

Even his worst critic would have to admit that Lang Lang has an incredible ability at the piano. I hope and wish that he would devote his considerable talent towards his own artistic and musical growth. Without that, no amount of designer clothing or glossy promotional material would be able to sustain his life as a musician.

Patrick May

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