Lang Lang phenomenon hits London, with 50 pianos

LONDON Wed May 18, 2011 12:25pm EDT

Pianist Lang Lang performs during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium, August 8, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Pianist Lang Lang performs during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium, August 8, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Blake

LONDON (Reuters) - A hundred youngsters playing 50 pianos all at once may not sound like everyone's idea of a musical treat, but it's a sellout at London's Royal Festival Hall this coming Sunday.

Call it the "Lang Lang Effect".

The 28-year-old Chinese piano phenomenon, who has brought popstar glamour to the classical concert circuit, landed in Britain this week on what he says is a mission to bring music -- both playing and listening -- to a wider, younger generation.

"Lang Lang Inspires", a six-day series of recitals and public events at the Southbank Centre, has also given audiences an opportunity to judge the musical merits of a pianist who has divided critics with his showmanship and prodigious technique.

Hailed by some as among the world's finest, whose success has inspired millions of Chinese youngsters to take up classical piano -- dubbed the "Lang Lang Effect" -- others hear a lack of artistic sensibility beneath the dramatic keyboard skills.

"The new generation's Liberace," sniffed one London critic.

A hard-graft childhood in industrial Shenyang, inspired aged 2 by a piano playing cat in a "Tom & Jerry" cartoon and driven by a fiercely ambitious father, led to international acclaim and work with some of the world's leading orchestras and conductors.

Five minutes of standing ovations and a double encore for a rapturous full house after Tuesday's opening solo recital left little doubt of the adulation the spiky-haired maestro inspires among a fan base that extends far beyond the high-brow crowd.

The clamour for autographs and the flashing of mobile phone cameras, the cries of "Wow!" and "Amazing!, were all in an evening's work for the young man the New York Times called "the hottest artist on the classical music planet" -- and that was before he played the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"CIRCUS TIME"

Some critics were less kind, conceding his dexterity and ability but questioning the artistic interpretation he brought to a programme of Bach, Schubert and Chopin.

After the first two pieces, "It was circus time," wrote Michael Church in the Independent. "Of course he played Chopin's Etudes brilliantly -- he's an indisputably brilliant pianist -- but he consistently went for effects at the expense of poetry."

Ismene Brown, writing on the theartsdesk.com, saw a talent for publicity as perhaps the greatest skill of "this showman with his precious, kittenish phrasing and facial expressions" whom she called "the new generation's Liberace".

Yet even Brown also heard a moment of beauty: "Suddenly, in the 12th Etude ... for two minutes I was totally upended.

"Here, suddenly, was a little boy who'd practised hour upon hour against the metronome, sweeping those huge arpeggios up and down the piano without cease. The furious technical challenge in which he found liberation for his soul pierced my heart.

"Deep, very deep, down inside Lang Lang there could be a sincere and humble musician -- but is it a priority for him, amid all this adulation?"

The pianist himself describes his priority as inspiring a wider audience: "It's an honour to have the ability to inspire kids. At the same time, it's a responsibility," he said in the programme notes for the week, which will end with 100 children aged from 5 to 24 joining him on stage at 50 pianos on Sunday.

In that mission of popularising his music, he seems to be succeeding. One man who heard him for the first time on Tuesday rushed to share his emotions on Lang Lang's Twitter feed:

"My first experience of a classical concert seeing you tonight," Jack Squires wrote. "I feel inspired by your talent."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

(More details of this week's programme are here)