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Lang Lang’s epic journey brings him back to Buffalo, for BPO opening gala

Lang Lang could be considered the Donald Trump of the piano.

Few are on the fence about him. The more critics accuse him of empty showmanship, the more his popularity rises. He talks a lot about China. And to top it off, his hair is often commented on. (Lang Lang’s ’do has been known to be spiky and outrageous, and there’s a YouTube video called “How Lang Lang Did His Hair.”)

Most importantly, the flashy Chinese-born superstar, who is 33 and single, has a knack for grabbing attention.

At this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, he played “Happy” with Pharrell Williams. At the 2014 Grammy ceremony, he joined forces with Metallica, surrounded by flames. He has played for President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a video, Lang Lang plays Chopin with an orange.

His story is like an epic film, from his childhood in Communist China to his studies with Gary Graffman and Daniel Barenboim. His technique is stupendous. And when he played Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in July 2011, he captivated a large crowd.

“Before he played a note, you could tell he was in charge,” The Buffalo News review noted. “The music crackled with daring and derring-do.”

Wednesday, Lang Lang will be the soloist at the BPO season-opening gala at Kleinhans Music Hall.

His publicists permitted an interview only via email. They forwarded questions to him, and a week later, they sent his answers back. It is nice how his answers, though brief, do not appear to have been edited.

“Buffalo is a beautiful and nice city, with unique natural scene,” he wrote.

“I visited the Niagara Fall a few times,” the pianist added. “I feel close to the nature each time going there. But I know during winter it is a bit challenging.”

JoAnn Falletta, the BPO’s music director, did not conduct Lang Lang’s previous performance. But she performed with him a couple of years ago in Phoenix, and relished the experience.

“People think of him as kind of a star,” she said on the phone. “But he was down to earth, laughing. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. The orchestra had two bodyguards for him. They followed him everywhere. He was very gentle to them, and treated them so beautifully. At the end, I asked the bodyguards if they had been anticipating any difficulty. They said no, but sometimes in China people get so excited they rush to the stage and it’s frightening because there’s a mob scene about him. In the U.S., I don’t think that would happen, people are too polite.”

Falletta was impressed by Lang Lang’s team spirit as they worked on the music.

“He was always asking me, would it work if it took a little more time? It’s all about his interaction with the orchestra,” she said. “He’s making music with the orchestra. He’s enjoying the interplay with the orchestra and himself.”

She sees the same thing happening with the Rachmaninoff. The Second Piano Concerto, wildly romantic, has been central to such classic movies as “Brief Encounter” and “September Affair.” Clint Eastwood wove the timeless slow movement into his 2010 movie “Hereafter.”

“This is the kind of piece that is disarmingly intimate between orchestra and piano,” Falletta said. “It’s dreamy at times, it becomes wild at other times, but you’re always doing that together. There’s this connection that happens in between all this beauty and virtuosity. The orchestra is always intertwined completely with him.”

Lang Lang, in his email, was not as loquacious. But he waxed enthusiastic over the concerto.

“Basically I love the whole piece,” he wrote. “I always can find new favorite part each time practicing. It is very typical Rachmaninoff work. It has amazing Russian style, magnificent and genuine.”

Rachmaninoff’s music, over the last century, has been controversial. In the mid-1900s, when it was relatively new, critics derided it as too “Hollywood.” Even Josef Krips, the BPO’s music director in the 1950s, put Rachmaninoff in the “pops” category. Lang Lang suffers no such qualms.

“Rachmaninoff’s works are among the best, it has special taste and meaning,” he wrote. “Every composer’s style is different.”

If his answers appear to be written in haste, perhaps that is because he is on the road a lot. Within days of opening the BPO’s season, he is performing at season-opening galas for the New York Philharmonic and the Baltimore Symphony. His fall schedule seems to average several appearances a week.

“I’ve gotten used to travel,” he typed. “I have little breaks anytime available, either in flight or car. And I read book, talk with friends, I find my ways to relax.”

His collaborations have been such that it is irresistible to ask what other musicians he might be interested in performing with. Alas, he does not take the bait.

“There are always great musicians in different genres of music,” he answered. “I am open to new collaborations with different kind of musicians, that is something that I always expect and makes me excited.”

What about his collaboration with his father, who plays the Chinese instrument called an erhu? In his memoir, “Journey of a Thousand Miles,” Lang Lang wrote about how his father pushed him relentlessly, sometimes comically and sometimes shockingly.

“He doesn’t push me anymore, and I don’t blame him on that,” Lang Lang wrote. “We are good friends now, he still is a great supporter to my career.”

Wednesday’s gala kicks off a season notable for a number of reasons.

The audiences will return to a renovated Kleinhans Music Hall. The seats are larger and the aisles are roomier.

Finnfest, held over two weekends in October, celebrates Kleinhans’ Finnish architects with sparkling music from Finland. Early November brings a celebrated ukulele virtuoso. It is also shaping up to be a fine year for piano. Upcoming months will find Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto; Beatrice Rana playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2; and pianist Conrad Tao playing a piece by John Adams.


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