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EXCLUSIVE Classicalite Q&A with Lang Lang on Mozart's Piano with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Vienna, United Nations of Sting, LeBron James as NBA MVP

By Ian Holubiak i.holubiak@classicalite.com on Dec 15, 2014 01:46 PM EST

If you haven't been on the Lang Lang train lately then you may want to board at the next station.

And that station is non other than our C-LITE A.V. Club.

With some exclusive clips from Lang Lang, premiering his ninth grade protégé Clayton Stephenson, there's little to hinder the steep rise of the world's pianist classical piano player.

And now for you Classicalites, our own Logan K. Young snagged some words with the crossover musician, talking everything from a collaboration with Nikolaus Harnoncourt on period instruments to why LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will win the NBA championship.

Here, then, are the minutes from our exclusive Q&A with Lang Lang.

Classicalite: We had the premiere of the trailer for your Mozart Album during street week. I wanted to talk about the relationships we saw on display here. There's some great repartee between you and Nik Harnoncourt. Can you speak a bit about working with him, such a storied ensemble like the Wiener Philharmoniker. Maybe how it came about, development-wise.

Lang Lang: I met Nik in 2006. He invited me to his home in Salzburg. So, I went there and started playing all his antique pianos--pianoforte, all those things. And then we got to work. He'd actually heard me a lot before, especially playing all the big Romantic repertoire. He was just curious to see how I played with the more practical stuff, the Baroque--mostly. So, after I played, [Harnoncourt] gave me some suggestions. The most important thing he said? You need to have a very stable base, the roots, but you can also be about flexibility in the rep. That I remembered very well. Then, he invited me to play Beethoven's No. 1, at Carnegie Hall, actually. Everybody thought: 'Oh my god. Harnoncourt and Lang Lang playing Beethoven 1 is a little weird!'

C-LITE: Not what someone would traditionally think.

LL: At that time, no. The concert went really well, nobody believed it, and everyone was like 'wow, this is really fresh and authentic.' That's what I remember from the review: 'fresh and authentic.' Of course, I didn't talk to Beethoven. Next, we start to see where there is a possibility to make a recording.

C-LITE: So, it came from the Beethoven First? You started playing the older stuff, the pianofortes and historically informed perspective, at his house. Then, you played the Beethoven at Carnegie...and now Mozart.

LL: Yeah, I worked with him for like two days in Salzburg in 2012 in the summer. He goes through with me everything: the articulations, the interpretation of what he wants to do and what he wants to hear from the piano. In the beginning, he wanted to do it on the old piano. And I said, 'No, I cannot play.' But I said I would learn, if Nik wanted me to.

C-LITE: He strikes me as a very urtex, an authentic conductor. You're studying these articulations, the specifics of it the score.

LL: But the great thing is there are also some conductors working on those kind of things, but Harnoncourt is very liberal. He's not like 'you cannot do this, you cannot do that.' He just respects the tradition, but he led me to all the flexibility stuff.

C-LITE: That you can have in the phrases and interpretations--overall gestalt. The shape of the sound.

LL: Yeah, so it's not like just you cannot do this, that. He's not a policeman at all; he's a great guy who inspires me. In a way, for the rehearsals, for the recordings, he said, 'this part in the Mozart, the chromatic scale goes down...it means the tears, or the bird not flying high.'

C-LITE: Again, I would not expect that from the uber-Vienese Harnoncourt.

LL: Then, he would say that one part of the Mozart is country music, so don't think about it so holy. It's just country music. But this part is religious music, so he comes back. Everything was so precise, but so natural, it feels like he's a friend of Mozart. And then the way he opened the first rehearsal, he told the orchestra, 'don't play clean!'

C-LITE: Don't play clean? What exactly do you mean?

LL: Well, sometimes when you have Mozart, people like to play very light and clean.

C-LITE: Well it's revolutionary music. So, you did the Beethoven first, giving the vigor back into it.

LL: He doesn't want the orchestra to be too candid either, though. He wants to have a little bit of a mess.

C-LITE: That you can hear on the record, indeed. There's a lot of give and take, especially in the concerto where you have the traditional rhetoric of orchestra versus soloist. You're also in town for the United Nations of Peace Messenger gig. I know you're working with Sting coming up, so what can we sort of expect?

LL: Friday is going to be amazing night. I'm starting to rehearse tonight with the kids. We are inviting from all over the world, from Kenya even.

C-LITE: Oh, wow. Kenya, in Africa?

LL:  Yeah, four kids from there. And then a lot of them from South America and some parts of the U.S. and Europe and Asia, as well. But the surprise will be, we will have a guest. Of course, everybody knows: Sting. He will sing "Englishman in New York."

C-LITE: That's one of my favorites, after the old Quentin Crisp.

LL: And also "Fragile." Pianists like Clayton from today, and some other of the students, are going to play together. So it's going to be pianists, other instrumentalists, singers, classical music and some American music. It will be a good kind of United Nations day.

C-LITE: United Nations, in music. Perhaps the universal language?

LL: Maybe. At least the next generation.

C-LITE: One more question: You and LeBron James are big friends. The NBA season has already started. Are the Cleveland Cavaliers going to win it all?

LL: I think Cavaliers are going to win everything! LeBron James is a genius on the court.

C-LITE: Well, he's said the same about you at the keyboard.

LL: I really love him; he's going to win.

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TagsLang Lang, Nikolaus Hanoncourt, C-Lite A.V. Club, Clayton Stephenson

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