Lang Lang emoting through Chopin

The Columbia University Chinese Students and Scholars Association and the undergraduate Chinese Students Club brought Lang Lang to Lerner on Tuesday afternoon. Bwog’s Sarah Thompson was on hand to listen to the sweet sounds.

What do Lang Lang, Ashton Kutcher, and the ice cream man have in common? They’re all people I’ll let keep me waiting for 17 minutes before they bring me their respective delights. For those who don’t know, Lang Lang (say “long”) is a world-renowned classical pianist originally from China. For those who do know, he can tend toward hyper-expressivity and quite liberal interpretations. But still, he’s a superstar, selling out concerts, headbanging to Rachmaninoff, and overdosing on practice hours.

For these reasons and the current state of the arts initiative, it was a big deal that the CUCSSA and the CSC brought him to Columbia Tuesday afternoon for a conversation about piano, music, and the world. After the event finally started and an introduction from the presidents of the clubs, Deantini lightened the mood with his insight: “These are welcoming remarks, so I should say welcome. So, welcome.” He spoke about Columbia as a global university, the large percentage of international students in the CC and SEAS Class of 2016 (18%), and his own visit to China as part of the “Deantini World Tour.”

Lang Lang and Peter Susser, Director of Undergraduate Musicianship and the moderator of the event, claimed the stage. Lang Lang recalled watching Tom and Jerry one day as a young child—he mostly liked Tom’s tuxedo, but thought the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 which Tom played was pretty cool, too. Adding to Tom and his family’s involvement in music, there was also the fact that at the age of five, “being a pianist was like being a rockstar” to drive him to practice for hours and hours every day. One must assume he practiced well as a tot, for at the event his hair was perfectly mussed, his shoes perfectly shiny, and his coat perfectly leather. I felt dazzled by his star power.

After humorous anecdotes—Lang Lang now watches two hours of cartoons per day, and Chopin Nocturnes played in the evening made him “have good dreams”—and describing his vision of increasing general music education in schools with his foundation, the time for the actual music came with few minutes to spare. Lang Lang, entranced, I guess, wandered over to the piano while still being introduced and poked at a few keys. “Good news; it’s a real piano!” On the real piano in the very real Roone Arledge Auditorium, Lang Lang performed two Chopin pieces. As expected, the “Grande Valse Brillante” Op. 18 in E-flat major featured intense facial expressions, dramatic hand lifts, emphasized dynamic contrasts, and his unique phrasings. But, boy oh boy did I jump up and down in my seat when he began to play the Op. 25 No. 1 étude—not an étude known for exceptional technical difficulty, but certainly known for the poignancy of the melody in the upper fingers of the right hand. He brought out the inner voices, cherished the last high F, and trilled (almost) without end leading to the final chord.

As he bowed, I mentally bowed for the chance to hear him play in person. Though Lang Lang’s interpretations aren’t everyone’s forté, the Columbia community struck gold in landing a humorous, philanthropic-minded, and gifted pianist for this event.