Lang Lang: 'It's about the joy that music can give'

He started playing at two, retired at nine, staged a comeback at 10 – and now has his own perfume, and duets with Pharrell. We meet piano superstar Lang Lang

“The beginner pianist,” says Lang Lang, himself one of the starriest of the species, “is like a startup company. Who can say what will one day become a Google?’ So is the 33-year-old Chinese pianist, who started up at the age of two after seeing a Tom and Jerry cartoon featuring Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2, now the Google of the piano? Given his multiple talents – from international soloist to musical ambassador to exuberant bling-and-glamour fashionista (he has his own perfume, headphones and, coming soon, piano-themed Swiss watch) – maybe it’s not an improbable comparison.

“No, no, no! Please, I’m not saying I’m Google!” Lang Lang laughs, clapping his hands to his head in mock horror. His name means sunny, twice over. He is. Fringe flopping, casually dressed in sweatshirt, jeans and Air Jordan trainers (he’s a big fan of the basketball player), Lang Lang bounces into a windowless basement meeting room in a Madrid hotel as if it’s the only place he’d want to be. He comments, in passing, that he is getting so sick of being on aeroplanes, in halls and hotels that he may take up marathon running, just to get some oxygen into his lungs.

“I am, first and last, a classical musician. But when you sit down and practise, technical issues apart, what I’m concerned about is how music can touch us, what can I learn from the piano in life? That should be the concrete thinking for everyone. OK, when I was two, I wanted to be No 1, best in the world. But it was all a fantasy, a wild dream. Now it’s about the joy music can give.”

Lang Lang’s piano book for beginners.
Cartoon fun … Lang Lang’s piano book for beginners – he also has an app. Photograph: PR Image

Lang Lang can put himself down more adroitly, and with more wit, than those critics who cannot see beyond his audacious showmanship and extrovert playing. Can it be that someone who plays Happy at the Grammys with Pharrell Williams can also perform exquisite Rachmaninov? His biggest admirers – among them Simon Rattle, with whom he has recorded concertos by Bartók and Prokofiev, and Daniel Barenboim, his great mentor – certainly think so. His own piano heroes are Vladimir Horowitz, also a great showman; and Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich, decided introverts.

Lang Lang on music education

Lang Lang’s features cloud momentarily when he considers the gainsayers. “It makes me sad. It stings a little, yes, but I have to ignore it. We all accept, even enjoy, the way sports stars or Hollywood actors behave. I want to show that classical can be cool and fun too. Is that so bad?”

Despite having a recital that evening, Lang Lang has agreed to this interview to promote his new piano method for children aged five to 10, published by Faber. Next month, he will play a concert for children at London’s Royal Albert Hall, with all tickets £5. This latest educational venture is an extension of the Lang Lang Piano Academy, launched in 2014, and the Lang Lang International Music Foundation for more advanced players, two of whom will play alongside him.

Amazing Lang Lang for Him perfume – with piano-shaped lid
Amazing Lang Lang for Him perfume – with piano-shaped lid Photograph: PR image/PR Image

The five new tuition books are for the complete novice. A cherubic, doll-eyed Lang Lang cartoon figure acts as guide, with accompanying online audio tracks and performances by the pianist himself. The essence, however, is technique. “No one likes to be faced with nothing but scales and arpeggios,” he says. “It’s easy to get bored. At the same time, these are the building blocks of music. How do you make beauty without the tools?”

If you could install a smiling Lang Lang in every home with a child trying to learn the piano – surely only a matter of time, there’s already an app – practice sessions might be transformed. Forty million children, many inspired by Lang Lang, now study the piano in China. Maybe none will become professional, but they will have encountered music from within, through their own endeavours, and discovered how it works. That’s what Lang Lang wants.

His own childhood, despite his incredible success, does not recommend itself. As a boy, he and his father lived in Shanghai away from his mother, who stayed home to earn a living to pay for his lessons. Tales of rat-infested rooms and battles with his disciplinarian tiger-father (they are at peace now) have been told many times.

By nine, the prodigy felt a failure when a conservatoire professor told him he had no talent. He went into brief retirement – until the age of 10, when he took it up again with renewed fervour. By 20 he had two dozen concertos under his belt and a public profile that has expanded year by year. Now he is on the road some 300 days a year.

Where does he live? Private life doesn’t figure much on Lang Lang’s agenda, though he has many high-profile friends, especially from the worlds of fashion and sport. “On a plane,” is his half-serious answer, qualifying it to “between New York and China”. He takes time off in the summer, to rest and learn new work, currently Spanish composers Albéniz and Granados.

Recently, for fun, he played piano four hands with the Brazilian footballer Neymar, who’s mad keen on the piano. The touching aspect of their duet, captured on YouTube, is how Lang Lang manages to fit around Neymar’s rhythmically eccentric rendition of Chariots of Fire, turning it into music.

Watch Lang Lang duet with Neymar

Lang Lang’s off to do two hours practice before his concert. “All that sitting down,” he says as we part. “You have to be fit to be a pianist: muscles, breathing, flexibility. Running marathons will help that. But now I just play ping pong.” Is he any good? “I am very good when I am playing someone worse than me.”

• The Lang Lang Piano Method for beginners aged 5-10, by Faber Music, is out on 8 March. Lang Lang performs a matinée concert for children and young people at the Royal Albert Hall on 17 April


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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