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Pianist coming here hit sour note at White House ; Lang Lang performed Chinese anti-U.S. song

When the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra splurged on superstar pianist Lang Lang to play Rachmaninoff on Saturday in honor of its 75th anniversary, it planned on a splash.

It did not plan on a storm.

At the moment, Lang Lang is making worldwide news -- and not because he is heading to Buffalo.

He entertained Jan. 19 at the White House dinner that President Obama held for visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao. As an encore, he played a passionate solo rendition of "My Motherland."

The song is popular in China, where it is a frequent karaoke selection.

But it is very nationalistic and was written for a 1956 Chinese movie called "Battle on Shangganling Mountain." Set during the Korean War, the film shows the Red Army defeating the Americans, who are portrayed as villains and referred to in the song as "jackals."

Did Lang Lang mean it as an insult?

The Wall Street Journal, on its website, reported that in mainland China, bloggers are gloating over Lang Lang's choice of repertoire and hailing it as a strike against America.

"Those American folks very much enjoyed it and were totally infatuated with the melody!!! The U.S. is truly stupid!" wrote one blogger in China, according to the Journal's post, which drew hundreds of comments.

Lang Lang has denied any ill intent. "I just thought it was a beautiful melody," he told an NPR reporter. "I never thought about, you know, and I never knew about anything about, you know, the background."

The White House, drawn into the fray, shrugged off the incident. "Any suggestion that this was an insult to the United States is just flat wrong," spokesman Tommy Vietor told ABC News.

Kristin Stapleton, director of UB's Asian Studies program, defended the young artist. She said she was familiar with the song but added: "I did not know it was from the film."

"I think that's probably the case of a lot of Chinese as well," she said. "A lot of younger Chinese, who weren't around in the '50s and '60s when the song was played a lot, don't know where it comes from."

Stapleton said "Battle on Shangganling Mountain" was just one of many propaganda films made by the Chinese government through the 1970s.

"I would be surprised if Lang Lang intended to insult his hosts," she said. "I'm guessing he just wanted to play a song that suits his style. I'm not a music critic, but he does seem kind of flamboyant and over the top.

"There are these conspiracy theories that he was pressured to play it by the Chinese government, but I think that's pretty implausible."

Lang Lang is playing Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, a specialty of his, Saturday in Kleinhans Music Hall. Tickets are selling well, and the orchestra is considering allowing standing room.

One question remains: After the Rachmaninoff, might Lang Lang play "My Motherland"?

A BPO official replied in an e-mail: "Ahahahahaa. Um, no."


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