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More Darkness, Hip-hop: Lang Lang at Harvard


Hailed as “the hottest artist on the classical music planet” by The New York Times, pianist Lang Lang attracted an excited mob —no wonder  here — at Sanders Theatre; he nearly filled the hall despite a raw day of rain with snow on the way. The 29-year-old superstar, conducted a master class on Saturday, October 29, that at once was instructive and entertaining. A big, hearty thanks goes to the Office for the Arts at Harvard’s “Learning From Performers” program and the Celebrity Series of Boston for presenting one of the year’s most special events that, by the way, was open to the public free of charge. Could it get any better than this?

Three Harvard students, all prize-winners in a range of competitions, all mostly receptive to Lang Lang, took the stage to perform. Afterwards, the audience was invited to ask questions. Did anything change? Were there lessons learned? You bet! Transformations of all kinds in the performances could be as clearly heard as they were fully appreciated by all throughout the hall. First, Lang Lang sat behind a music stand following the score. He then talked, conducted, gestured, sang, tapped out accents with his foot, traded seats with the Harvard pianists to play a passage — all this with remarkable candidness and boundless enthusiasm. Everything from emotion and expression to breathing, relaxing, phrasing, and fingering came into play. He had us learning and laughing.

First up was pianist Tania Rivers-Moore ’15 with Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op.109, first and second movements. “Wonderful touch,” he said, “for Beethoven, more tension is needed … more darkness … the struggling sound. … Like at home, do you have a good bass system? Then they worked on re-sounding bass notes together.

Second up was George Xiaoyuan Fu ’13 with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B flat, Op 83, second and third movements. During his playing, Lang Lang put a thumb up, and with a big smile, mouthed the words “He’s good!”  After the fast last treacherous movement, Precipitato, came “That was amazing! Wow! I played this last year. What’s your major?” Fu answered, “Economics,” to which Lang responded, “How did that happen? . . .“You might want to start this movement a bit slower so that when you come to the last pages with the intense rhythms, ‘Hip-hop classical,’ you can go faster to make a spectacular close.”

Third up was Allen Yueh ’13, majoring in Applied Mathmatics, with Liszt’s Sonata in b minor, S. 178. During his performance, the Master Pianist commented, “You know, next week is Halloween, … and this piece has a lot to do with it. You have a lot of good ideas, but some of these don’t work.” He related the story of how Sviatoslav Richter would make the opening two notes as scary as could be, “walk slowly onstage…take only a slight bow…sit down at the piano for thirty seconds, and all this will get the audience wondering about what’s going on. … Then, you play the first two octaves and they will be as scary as you will ever imagine.”

Q & A. followed:

Member of audience: Who are your favorite composers and do you, yourself, compose?

Lang Lang: Bach to Bartok…I don’t compose but I can create a ringtone.

How does synergy play out, given you are Chinese and the music you play requires a very different kind and amount of energy?

Music is a language…there are different languages…different cultures…you must understand the culture to play the music. I am always learning and will never learn it all in my lifetime.

What was your biggest failure and how did find inspiration to go on?

When I was seven, I finished third, receiving the consolation prize in a competition, which was a dog. Not a real one, a toy. I hated that dog, because the word ‘consolation’ was right there on it. But then, I began putting the toy dog on my piano, practicing away every day with it in sight, liking it more day by day.

The Celebrity Series of Boston will present Lang Lang at Symphony Hall, Boston on Sunday, October 30, 3 pm, in a concert sponsored by Eleanor and Frank Pao.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


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