Friday, July 6, 2012

Musical Journey

When record producer Walter Legge tried to convince conductor Carlo Maria Giulini to record a certain work, arguing that it would be good for his career, the already legendary conductor responded, with, I imagine, some disdain in his voice, “What is this word ‘career’?”

Pianist Lang Lang probably thinks of little else other than his career. After reading Journey of a Thousand Miles, Lang Lang’s memoir, given to me by a friend, I was filled with a sense of sadness; sadness at an artist who devotes so much of his considerable ability and obvious talent, not towards his own musical and artistic growth, but merely towards advancing his career. And sadness that this is an artist who symbolizes what most people would consider the future of serious music. It is also presumptuous and arrogant for an artist in his early thirties to think that a look back at his life is warranted. I am sure his legion of fans all over the world would disagree with me. Perhaps Lang Lang is taking lessons from pop star Justin Bieber, who published his memoir at an even earlier age.

If success in classical music is measured by record sales, concert attendance, and exposure in the press, Lang Lang can probably be considered to be the most successful musician on the planet.

It all began with Lang Lang’s father, a musician of the Erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument, who himself was denied entry to the conservatory, and ended up playing in the Chinese Air Force band. Lang Lang’s mother was also musical, and dreamt of becoming a singer or dancer. In the pianist’s own words, “As a child of two musicians who had had their ambitions and hopes shattered, I was born of great expectations – ones that both guided me and led me to great success.” Indeed the word success seems to be the leitmotif of the entire book and of Lang Lang’s life.

After discovering that his son is musically talented, Mr. Lang senior inflicted upon his son a regiment of practice that can only be described as inhumane and downright abusive. The approach of his father, again according to Lang Lang, “had to do with winning, winning, winning.” The only objective is to win every competition, and the phrase “to be number one” also appears frequently throughout this rather thin volume. When the pianist was rejected by a teacher, his father screamed at his son and offered him a choice of killing himself by taking poison, or by jumping off a building. I can only imagine what such an upbringing does to the psyche of a young person, let alone one who is sensitive.

Much of the book is devoted to the pianist’s string of triumphs in piano competitions, in China and then abroad, culminating in his winning of the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Japan, his success at the Curtis Institute of Music, and then even greater success with major conductors and orchestras the world over. Indeed, more than half of the book reads like a litany of accomplishments, almost like a World War II fighter pilot bragging about the number of enemy planes he shot down. It gets a little tiring after a while.

The young pianist has often been criticized for the flamboyance of his gestures while he plays. No one is able to judge whether, or how much, his rather extravagant gestures contribute toward his music-making. Maybe we can get some insight into the pianist’s gestures from his own words:

I thought of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, and in my mind I transformed their most brilliant moves into my playing: I imagined Jordan’s slam dunk as the big beginning of the Tchaikovsky chords; I thought of Tiger Woods’s swing while playing the octaves.

Well, whatever works for him, I guess.

In spite of the tension in their relationship, Lang Lang and his father eventually did reconcile their differences, to the extent that the two played a short duet at Lang Lang’s Carnegie Hall debut. Mr. Lang senior, the failed musician, made it to Carnegie Hall after all - Mr. Lang senior finally realized his own dream through his son.

In the final paragraph of his book, the pianist confesses that he has “always dreamed big.” Yes, Lang Lang, you have realized your big dreams. But, as violinist Malcolm Lowe says, music is not a business, and that music “can’t flourish without the idea that it is a gift.”

My only wish for Lang Lang is that he would one day devote his great abilities to deepening his understanding of music, to becoming a musician, and not merely a pianist who can play fast and loud. There is nothing at all wrong with success, but success and career do not guarantee deepening musicianship, no matter how loud or long the applause is.

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