Arts & Culture

Pianist Lang Lang steps out of his comfort zone with new CD

Lang Lang performs Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra February 28, 2015.
Lang Lang performs Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra February 28, 2015. Special to the Star-Telegram

During his musical career, classical pianist Lang Lang has tackled musical titans such as Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Now he’s gleefully taking on Jay Z.

The Chinese superstar has recorded a new crossover album in which he tries to capture the spirit of New York, including doing a cover of the rapper’s Empire State of Mind, with its lyrics “Welcome to the melting pot, corners where we selling rock.”

“I’m really always curious to hear different kinds of music and different kinds of music-making,” said Lang Lang. “I think it’s important to show the other side that we are creative people.”

His 10-track CD New York Rhapsody has versions of Tonight, from the musical West Side Story; Moon River, from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Danny Elfman’s theme from the Spider-Man movie; and the Eagles’ New York Minute.

It’s a bold move even for a musician who has tried to push classical music out of its elite, frumpy bubble and embrace other kinds of sounds. For that, Lang Lang acknowledges being encouraged by projects from other crossover stars like Luciano Pavarotti and Yo-Yo Ma.

“All those things are so inspiring because they are still following in the traditions and they are still treasuring the traditions, but, at the same time, putting out a statement to the world like, ‘Hey guys. Try this flavor.’ I like that attitude,” he said.

Lang Lang, who has been a friend of Herbie Hancock for a number of years, recorded a version of the song Rhapsody in Blue with the jazz icon in 2012, but it took longer to find other collaborators and the right producer for an album.

In the end, he enlisted Andra Day, Jason Isbell, Jeffrey Wright, Kandace Springs, Lindsey Stirling, Lisa Fischer, Madeleine Peyroux and Sean Jones. Grammy Award-winner producer Larry Klein, who has worked with Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell, came on board to pull it all together. He did so at first a little reluctantly.

“I’m not a big fan of the genre of classical crossover records. And that’s putting it mildly. I don’t think I’ve ever liked one,” Klein said. “I really thought, ‘Oh, God. There’s about 3,000 ways to do this wrong and maybe one way to do it right.’ 

Klein came up with the idea of a tone poem for New York, with Klein explaining the significance of some songs to Lang Lang, and the pianist, who has shared stages with Metallica and Pharrell Williams, pushing into other genres. At one point, Lang Lang wanted to do a Lil Wayne song.

“The best thing that I can say about him is that he’s an insatiably curious guy. He’s an open soul,” Klein said. “It was a big growth experience I think for him to learn about all sorts of things and for me as well because he challenged me in some areas.” (A concert special from Lincoln Center will air Nov. 25 on PBS.)

Early promise

Lang Lang first encountered classical music as a 3-year-old watching Tom and Jerry cartoons and by age 5 was performing in concerts. A few years later, he was chosen to attend a prestigious conservatory in Beijing.

The prodigy is now 34 with matinee-idol popularity in the classical world. He was the guest soloist at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s gala concert in February 2015 and at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s gala concert last month.

He gets occasional criticism from more conservative listeners for his dramatic playing style, but there’s no denying his skill and influence. In China, the so-called Lang Lang effect is credited with encouraging more than 40 million children to learn to play the piano.

In his Star-Telegram review of last year’s concert with the FWSO, critic Olin Chism wrote, “His interpretations may be eccentric … but he sure knows how to please an audience. He’s probably crying all the way to the bank at the wails of his detractors.”

In person, he’s funny and relaxed. A sports nut who travels constantly, he has lent his name to perfumes, watches and sneakers. He embraces social media, lends his efforts to teach kids music and wants the classical world to learn from sports, fashion and the entertainment industry.

“We need to be a little edgier,” he said. “Of course we will keep playing Beethoven and we will keep playing Mozart and we will keep playing Chopin. That’s what we do.

“At the same time, we need to inspire the world.”

This story contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.