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Lang Lang: A Life In Music, So Far

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Chinese pianist Lang Lang, at age 26, is one of the most visible, in-demand classical musicians in the world today. His concerts usually sell out (he played to an audience of 63,000 last night in New York's Central Park) and he's sold more than a million copies of his CDs and videos.

His story, published in the new autobiography Journey of a Thousand Miles, (read an excerpt) is one of fierce determination and a demanding stage father. Also, he writes about how moving to the U.S. meant abandoning what he says was a typical Chinese approach to his career: to be number one.

Lang Lang won his first piano competition at age 5. Backed by his unrelenting father, he thought the only road to success was a schedule crammed with practice and competitions. He still believed it, at age 14, when he was accepted as a student of the venerable Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

"In the first lesson," Lang Lang recalls, "I said, 'I want to be like Tiger Woods. I want to win all the big competitions.'" Graffman laughed. He asked the young pianist if he wanted a long career or short-term fame.

"I said, of course, 'long career.' He said you need to study, work hard on your piano playing, don't think about others, and one day, somebody will be not able to play in a concert. Then, if you succeed as a replacement, then you will have a career."

As with many star performers in the classical music world, Lang Lang's rise to fame came exactly as Graffman predicted. Filling in at a moment's notice for an ailing Andre Watts, Lang Lang nailed a performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was 17, and the next day papers were buzzing with talk of a new pianist who must be heard.

Since then, Lang Lang has been heard around the world, performing solo recitals, as well as concertos with the world's finest orchestras and conductors. He admits that his meteoric rise has been dizzying, but said it is beginning to give him a new view of himself as an artist. In the book, he writes of his experiences bringing music to impoverished villages in Africa as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

"During that trip," he writes, "I often thought of my own difficult childhood, but my days and nights in Africa redefined the meaning of difficulty and put many things in perspective for me. I kept remembering what Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, told me in New York before I'd left for Africa. 'Lang Lang,' he said, 'your responsibility as an artist goes beyond music. Your art must serve people and peace.'"

Copyright NPR 2016.

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