Opening New Dimensions: Lang Lang and culture

by Gabrielle Lochard

"Once you know about the culture and, what's behind the notes, you will understand the music - you must be open to keep learning new styles," said pianist Lang Lang. Openness, in both this sense and the physical, was one of several themes which arose during the course of of an hour-and-half master class taught by pianist Lang Lang this past Saturday, sponsored by the OFA's Learning From Performers program and Celebrity Series of Boston. Lang Lang, whose world renown has reached meteoric heights in the past five years, coached three Harvard undergraduates (Tania Rivers-Moore '15, George Fu '13, and Allen Yueh '12) to a sold-out crowd in Sanders Theatre.

Rivers-Moore, who was the first student to play, took on the first two movements of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 109. As Lang explained to the audience, this sonata is really the first of his three late sonatas - in this sonata, Beethoven retreats from the expansive heroism of Op. 106 (Hammerklavier), and of the middle works more generally, into an expressive space that is both more intimate and tonally experimental. "This is the first of Beethoven's late sonatas, so in other words, it is already starting into the Romantic era. You need more power to control it - at the moment, the whole thing sounds pretty sweet, but there needs to be more darkness," said Lang.

To demonstrate his point, Lang gave his own rendition of the first phrase, emphasizing that more weight had to be given to the quarter notes in the phrase, and in general the phrase had to have more of a sense of the four-bar arc.

"The masterclass was especially valuable to me because of the contrast between our personalities and musical styles," said Rivers-Moore. "Lang Lang worked to infuse more flexibility and drama into my playing. Although his teaching was very detail-oriented, the work on connecting phrases and transitions helped to unify the piece as a whole. While teaching, he was confident, but never overly authoritative; he portrayed himself as both teacher and a peer, a balance that made me feel more comfortable onstage."

Throughout the class, Lang was quick to express admiration, both for the more introverted interpretation served by Rivers-Moore, and for George Fu's aggressive reading of the 7th Prokofiev sonata [one of Lang's responses: "I'm like 'What?'"]. Fu, who studies piano at the Curtis Institute, played the last two movements of the sonata, which by their nature require contrast in approach - in the slow movement, more focus was cast on line and color. As he did with the Beethoven, Lang encouraged more darkness: "Prokofiev wrote this piece during the a very difficult time, during the war - in general, the sounds needs to be darker. Also, Russian music, like Beethoven, is beautiful and emotional, but you have to think about the bigger phrase." In the Precipitato, an unflagging crowd-pleaser, Lang shifted his focus to rhythm and tempo, joking that this was "the first hip-hop classical piece."

After the class, Fu commented on the interactive nature of the class: "With Lang Lang, I felt that there was a lot of interplay, because he made everybody feel at home and very comfortable, which a lot of artists aren't able to do, and they're actually very bad at master classes, because they tend to forget that it's supposed to also be for the audience - you're teaching everybody, not just the student in front of you, and I felt like he did that really well."

This sentiment was echoed by Allen Yueh, the third student on the program, who thinks that the role of master classes is as much about teaching students as it is showing a non-piano playing audience a bit of what lessons look like and what it means to work on and prepare a piece. Yueh played the first movement of Liszt's Sonata, and his coaching took a more kinesthetic turn. Lang suggested that Yueh involve even his walk on stage in his interpretation: "The beginning is something out of a scary movie. When Richter was explaining how he did the beginning of this piece he said, 'You walk up to the stage very slowly, and you don't really take a bow. You count thirty seconds, and then..." The kinesthetic approach remained, and at one point, Lang pushed down on Yueh's shoulders to make sure that he didn't physically let up from a crescendo, or lose the broadness in his physical person.

In all, Saturday's master class was a chance for both students and the audience to experience the point of view of one of the world's most in-demand concert artists. When asked what role he thought master classes played in a student's studies, Lang answered that they "open a new dimension in their studies, another possibility that they don't experience every day." I think that this was probably the case for everybody in Sanders on Saturday. For pianists and non-pianists, it was a chance to compare the approaches of students to each other, as well as to see how a world-renowned musician interprets these works and communicates his ideas to others. Lang combined his own playing with kinesthetic and gestural devices, as well as mix of humor, charisma and openness, which resonated throughout the hall.

[Caption: Lang Lang on stage at Sanders Theatre. Photo by Robert Torres.]

[Caption: Lang Lang with Tania Rivers-Moore ‘15. Photo by Robert Torres.]

[Caption: Lang Lang with George Fu ‘13. Photo by Robert Torres.]