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Lang Lang's Journey to Beethoven

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One of the biggest sensations in classical music today is Chinese pianist Lang Lang. He came to love the piano in a surprising way. When he was barely more than a toddler, he became obsessed with a Tom & Jerry cartoon in which Tom the cat pounds out a Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt, with paws flying in all directions. Lang Lang wanted to play as fast as that cat could. Now at age 24, Lang Lang still likes to play the piece.

Lang Lang got his big break in 1999. He was 17 when he was asked to fill in at the last minute for veteran pianist Andre Watts. The unknown Chinese teenager played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was a performance grand enough to launch his career.

Since then, Lang Lang has conquered the classical world with dazzling technique and charisma. Sometimes, as his fingers plunge into the final chord, he leaps to his feet. Some critics wonder whether he's overdoing it — but audiences go wild.

And now Lang Lang is out to conquer Beethoven. His first ever Beethoven record, The Piano Concertos 1 & 4, is released today. The music is virtuosic, but it requires more than just muscle. It's an intricate give-and-take between piano and orchestra.

Lang Lang's concert calendar is booked through 2010, he has a major record contract (rare in the world of classical music), and he practices on an old piano that once belonged to his idol, Vladimir Horowitz. Not bad for a career that started with a Tom & Jerry cartoon.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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