Dr Lang Lang is an internationally superstar pianist who has made a profound impact on the world both as an ambassador of the arts and as an inspiration to countless aspiring young musicians.
He was born in Shenyang in Liaoning in China in 1982 and was introduced to the beauty of music by his father who played the erhu. His first introduction to classical music was at the young age of two when he heard Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in an episode of Tom and Jerry, clearly revealing the importance of cartoons on the development of culture. This motivated him to learn to play the piano! At the age of five, Lang Lang won first prize at the Shenyang Piano Competition and performed his first public recital. He had begun his journey on the road to fame.
But all was not plain sailing. When he was nine years old, he intended to audition for Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music but was subsequently expelled from his piano tutor's studio for 'lack of talent'. Happily, he persevered and, having retired from music for less than a year, came back stronger and more determined. He proceeded to win several prizes including first prize for outstanding artistic performance at the fourth International Competition for Young Pianists in Germany and first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Japan. At the still young age of fourteen, he was a featured soloist at the China National Symphony's inaugural concert, which was broadcast and attended by President Jiang Zemin.
Then a very significant event in his life occurred. When he was fifteen years old he and his father left China for the USA. Albeit in an alien environment, he continued to pursue his studies and enhance his pianistic skills with ever-growing success. He became the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras and a Chicago Tribune music critic lauded him as 'the biggest, most exciting young keyboard talent I have encountered in many a year of attending piano recitals'. Lang Lang is not, however, a pianist in the conventional mode. As a result of his so-called 'audacious and extrovert playing style', it has famously been said that he is able successfully to straddle two worlds – classical prodigy and rock-like 'superstar'.
Lang Lang has performed in the most prestigious concert halls and before a glittering array of famous dignitaries. In 2001, after a sold-out Carnegie Hall debut, he travelled to Beijing with the Philadelphia Orchestra on a tour celebrating its 100th anniversary, during which he performed to an audience of 8,000 at the Great Hall of the People. The same year, he made his acclaimed BBC Proms debut, prompting a music critic of The Times to write: 'Lang Lang took a sold-out Royal Albert Hall by storm ... This could well be history in the making'.
As for his audience, he has performed for numerous international dignitaries including President Xi Jin-ping, US Presidents George HW Bush, George W Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (I assume Donald Trump is still to come!), Queen Elizabeth II, President Hu Jintao and Pope Francis, as well as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
His contribution to sport (and soccer in particular) is also noteworthy. He participated in the opening concert at Munich's Olympic Stadium, marking the commencement of the 2006 FIFA World Cup and in a celebratory concert held the night before the last match of the 2008 Euro Cup Final. Recently he played piano four hands with the renowned Brazilian footballer Neymar who is, apparently very keen on piano playing. As recorded on YouTube Lang Lang successfully managed to cope with Neymar’s rhythmically eccentric rendition of Chariots of Fire, turning their joint performance into comprehensible music! In 2008, an audience estimated at well over two billion people (including, I assume, most of us) enjoyed Lang Lang's performance in Beijing's opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics where he was promoted as a symbol of the youth and future of China.
In April 2009 Time Magazine included Lang Lang in its list of the 100 most influential people. Herbie Hancock, the great jazz musician, described his playing as 'so sensitive and so deeply human', commenting that - 'You hear him play and he never ceases to touch your heart'.
But this piano virtuoso has stepped confidently into different music worlds, teaming up with artists from diverse genres. For example, he displayed his versatility when in 2014 he collaborated with heavy metal band Metallica at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards performing their iconic 1988 anti-war classic 'One'.
Apart from his many wonderful performances, Lang Lang has devoted much time and effort in encouraging young players. He has published a book promoting a new piano method for young children. He also founded the Lang Lang Piano Academy in 2014 and the Lang Lang International Music Foundation for more advanced players. He has undoubtedly been a great inspiration to young pianists around the world. Forty million children in China, many inspired by Lang Lang, now study piano in China and, no doubt, some will aspire to prominence in the music world, perhaps as their idol has done. But those who do not, he believes, will have benefitted enormously from their musical encounters. His influence has led to the coining of the expression 'the Lang Lang effect'! Indeed, Steinway for the first time in its 160-year history has named a piano model after him. His volunteer activities have included performing for sick children in hospitals, delivering classical music recitals to remote communities and donating his musical talents to raise awareness of several charitable causes.
As one would expect, he has received many accolades. In 2010 he was named as one of the 250 Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum and in 2011 he was honoured with the highest prize awarded by the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China. In 2013 he was designated by the Secretary General of the United Nations as a ‘Messenger of Peace’.
When asked about his private life he responded that, although he has many friends in the world of fashion and sport, he lives mainly on an aeroplane commuting between New York, Europe and China! Not much of a private life!
Sadly, Lang Lang is presently suffering from tendinitis, a common problem for pianists, and must suffer a temporary break in his career. We all wish him a speedy and total recovery.
How does one sum up the stellar career of a man who is still only thirty-five and has achieved so much and given so much pleasure to so many? Equally happy playing for billions of viewers at the Beijing Olympics or for just a small audience of school children in China's public schools, he has proved himself a master of communication through music. He unites excellence with accessibility and has built important bridges between Eastern and Western music. The word 'inspiration' resounds like a musical motif through his life and career; inspiring millions of listeners with his emotive playing and inspiring children through his example.
Asked about the driving motivation behind his career he replied:
'My motivation comes from my deep love of the piano. I think we have become a unity and nothing can ever separate us'.
What does he feel he still wants to achieve? He told me:
'There is still a strong feeling and emotion in my heart to promote classical music to every corner of the globe. I very much hope that more children can receive a musical education especially those from poorer areas. That is my dream and I am still on the road to fulfilling this dream'.
Mr President, an inspiring dream from an inspiring man.
Mr President, it is my honour and privilege to present to you Dr Lang Lang for the award of Doctor of Social Sciences honoris causa.
Citation written and delivered by Professor Michael Wilkinson, the Public Orator of the University.