China's star pianist Lang Lang plays for change

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s flamboyant pianist Lang Lang said his performance at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics was a message -- China is changing.

Pianist Lang Lang performs during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium, August 8, 2008. The stadium is also known as the Bird's Nest. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The 26-year-old spiky-haired pianist has captivated audiences around the world by combining his classical repertoire and pop-culture showmanship, making him a national hero alongside sport stars such as basketballer Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang.

Lang, whose designer jackets have prompted some to call him the “Chinese Liberace,” now lives in New York, but he said he still kept close ties to his native country and returns often.

“As a young guy it is a big honor for me to play at the opening ceremony and to represent a new generation of Chinese people to the world,” Lang told Reuters.

“I’m part of a new generation in China enjoying a very different way of life from our parents. We love American culture and classical music but we also have strong Chinese traditions.”

Lang was delighted with the choice for the Olympics -- a new eight-minute long concerto by Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye.

“It really is beautiful,” said Lang, who has his signature on a new Adidas shoe and took part in the Olympic torch relay in Tiananmen Square in the run-up to the August 8-24 Games.

Lang’s global profile has risen rapidly in recent years as he played sold-out recitals around the world and his album sales ranked him as a best-selling classical musician.

He does not suffer the shyness that holds other Chinese performers back on the world stage. His YouTube video stunts include playing Chopin with an orange.

Some Chinese people are uncomfortable with his extrovert nature and lack of humility, and several critics have even called his playing vulgar and insensitive.

Lang started playing the piano at age 3 after being inspired by an episode of the television cartoon “Tom and Jerry” in which the cat, Tom, was playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

Lang gave his first public recital at the age of 5 and when he was 9, he entered Beijing’s Central Music Conservatory.

“I fell in love with music and never looked back,” he said.

He was pushed by his ambitious father, Lang Guoren, whose own musical aspirations were hampered by the Cultural Revolution.

In his autobiography “Journey of a Thousand Miles” published in July, Lang recalls how his father once asked him to commit suicide as he was so disappointed by his performance.

Lang left China when he was 15 to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with his big break coming two years later when he played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Since then, he has played with most major orchestras around the world and his most recent published work is the piano music for the score of the movie “The Painted Veil.”

Still, Lang said it was important to keep close to his roots. He won domestic plaudits for raising funds to help the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, including auctioning a red Steinway.

“I prefer to live in New York because no matter who you are there, you won’t be mobbed. In China now everybody knows me,” he said.

Editing by Alex Richardson and Bob Tourtellotte