http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/musi ... r-met.html
'Lang Lang? We've never met'
His piano recitals attract billions; he won't do 'crossover'; and he's making Chopin hip. But what does the Chinese classical superstar Yundi think of his famous rival?
By Julia Llewellyn Smith11:00AM BST 07 Jun 2014
In a private room on the top floor of Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, hordes of glamorous and mainly very young Chinese women (and the odd man) are packed around a Steinway piano on a stage in the middle of the room. Blow-dried, designer-clad with shopping bags at their feet, they’re drinking champagne and nibbling canapés, excitedly anticipating the evening’s star attraction.
The man they’ve been waiting for, a pianist named Yundi, enters to a ripple of excitement. In black tie, with an Elvis quiff and baby face, one of China’s biggest stars steps onto the stage. Beside him is a beaming Sir David Tang, the Chinese billionaire and socialite.
The so-called “Prince of the Piano” sits, raises his famous, slender hands and launches into a silky Chopin’s Nocturnes. Scores of iPhones click and whirr, capturing his fingers gliding across the keyboard. At the end of his 45-minute recital, fans, who’d won tickets through social media, whoop and cheer, before queuing for autographs.
Classical musicians have long been considered dusty, dry figures, but in China, 31-year-old Yundi and his more internationally known rival Lang Lang are treated as rock stars. They’ve inspired what’s being called “piano fever”; an estimated 50 million young Chinese now learn the instrument that until recently was banned as “decadent”.
Hordes of fans follow Yundi (born Li Yundi) wherever he goes. In last year’s Chinese classical music charts, he had 11 albums in the top 15, while his latest recording of Beethoven’s sonatas went platinum – two feats unprecedented not just in the classical world, but in the entire Chinese music market.
A one-billion-strong audience watched his televised performance at the Chinese Spring Festival Gala, with 10,000 in the auditorium. On Weibo (China’s Twitter) he has 14.5 million followers, who react in fury to anyone who dares even mildly criticise their hero, and is one of the top 10 Chinese celebrities discussed on the service. When he announced his idol was Chopin, the dead composer’s biography began racing up the Chinese book charts. He advertises Rolex and Bang & Olufsen and is the “image ambassador” to Super Boys – China’s answer to Pop Idol.
Last year his Dream Tour – the largest classical tour in Chinese history – took in 33 cities, with tickets selling out in only 12 minutes. “Nobody had ever done anything like this before,” says Yundi, sitting in a hotel bar, the morning after the Harvey Nichols showcase. Another pianist hammers out show tunes in the background; Yundi declines the PR’s suggestion that he re-enact the scene in the film Shine when the hero stuns a restaurant with his virtuoso performance.
“My fans really love me, so they want to understand classical music and I want to help them,” he continues. “By watching me, they’ve learnt not to clap between the movements, to know some of the music I play quite well. I love the idea of playing quiet music on a big stage, you can feel every note bubbling in the air, with everybody following.”
In jacket and jeans, the quiff now a shaggy mane, Yundi is unassuming and polite. Thanks partly to the language barrier (he began learning English when studying in Germany, aged 18), but also to his devotion to the piano, he makes an amiable, but opaque character. But this restraint makes the Chinese love him more, his reserve being viewed as more characteristic of the country than Lang Lang’s flamboyance. “My emotions are expressed through the piano,” he says. “It’s easier to speak through the keys than through words.”
Yundi appeals not only to 15-year-olds but also to serious music buffs. In 2000 he was awarded the gold medal at Warsaw’s International Chopin Competition, the first time the notoriously picky judges had awarded the prize in 15 years. He was the youngest ever pianist, and also the first Chinese musician, to win.
Since then, his playing has been internationally acclaimed. “Mr Li is a poetic player with a sensitive touch, but also ample power when he needs it,” said The New York Times of his early Chopin recordings. His latest CD of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic was declared “brilliant and properly rhetorical, yet superfine” by pianist Stephen Preslin in International Record Review.
We meet at the end of a 21-date European tour. “I feel so good today, now the tour’s over,” he exclaims, stretching his arms in the air. “If I’d met you yesterday I would have been stressed but last night we went out for great food in Chinatown and this morning there was no alarm clock going off at six, saying it’s time to go to the airport again.”
In China, Yundi leads a superstar lifestyle, even though he lists his hobbies as “drinking tea and listening to jazz”. Based in Beijing, he hangs out with actors, models and singers (the Chinese media has long speculated about his alleged gay relationship with a Taiwanese pop star, though I’m reliably informed he has a girlfriend).
“My friends work in different areas, but we understand what it’s like to be in the public eye and we can support each other in that,” he says, pulling out his phone to show a photo of him with Katy Perry when she recently played in China (this would have enhanced Perry’s profile, rather than his).
The Chinese Tiger Parent is an archetype that makes Western parents feel simultaneously guilty their children will be left behind and smug at their lack of pushiness. We’ve all heard about Lang Lang’s father telling his nine-year-old son to kill himself when his playing wasn’t good enough, read about Amy Chua demanding six hours of daily music practice from her daughters, and violinist Vanessa Mae, whose mother reportedly slapped and hit her when her playing wasn’t up to scratch.
In comparison, Yundi’s story is disappointingly undramatic – but nonetheless extraordinary. Born in provincial Chongqing in Sichuan province, his steelworker parents, he says, were always “supportive and loving”, even if his mother did have to cajole him sometimes to practise.
“She wouldn’t beat me, instead she promised me a toy like a car as a reward. It’s true there are Chinese parents who punish their children, but Sichuan is a very relaxed region, its culture is very elegant, more poetic – like the Chinese philosophers. Our people don’t subscribe to this idea: ‘You must.’ ”
It wasn’t as if music featured in their plans for their son. His mother enjoyed Chinese ballet, but his father was completely unmusical. Yundi, however, always loved singing along with the radio and when he was three he spotted an accordion in the local mall and, after a demonstration from the shop assistant, insisted on learning to play.
At seven, “very late, very late age”, his teacher encouraged him to quit lessons with her and move on to the piano. Even though his hands were too small to span an octave, within a few months Yundi had progressed so much his teacher declared he was no longer worthy to teach him.
It was the late Eighties and the piano was rarely heard in provincial China. “My father and my piano teacher were not allowed to make music during the Cultural Revolution,” he says. “There was no connection with the West – no tapes, no CDs, no Western musicians came to China. It was very difficult only to imagine how your music should be played but not to see it. I was always hungry for more information.”
His father drew on savings of their extended family to buy him a second-hand piano for $500 – 40 times his monthly salary. “It was like buying a house,” he later recalled. At 13, the family moved to the state capital Shenzhen so Yundi could study at the conservatoire, his mother giving up her job, his father starting his own business to support him.
Today, thousands of Chinese families foster musical ambitions for their offspring, but his parents were simply bemused. “We had no idea about fame, how could we imagine how Horowitz’s or Rubinstein’s life was? There was no security in what I did, it was all about my passion. My parents just wanted me to be happy.”
Everything changed in 2000 when he beat 93 contestants to the Chopin prize. “Suddenly I was a national hero, meeting our prime minister and president, everyone’s attention is on me, it was all engagements, interviews, invitations.” He signed with Deutsche Grammophon, but refused the expected route of non-stop touring and recording, instead moving to Hanover for five years’ more study.
“I wanted to slowly develop, to focus without disturbance.” DG was frustrated by his reluctance to cash in. Yundi smiles. “Practising for six hours a day, so much time alone with yourself, just with music. It makes me very strong.”
While most classical musicians are pushed into playing any and every genre in an attempt to woo the masses, Yundi refuses to dilute his repertoire. “I don’t do crossover, I don’t change my style,” he says firmly. “I share what I do with young people; if they want different music they can find it in a different area.”
It’s hard not to read such comments as digs at Lang Lang, Yundi’s long-standing rival and exact contemporary. Rumour has it that Lang Lang’s father reportedly told one symphony orchestra manager that his son would not play with them if a future concert was booked with Yundi and in 2009 the boy from Beijing had Yundi dropped by Universal (Deutsche’s parent label), saying the label only had room for one Chinese pianist.
The following year, however, Lang Lang defected to Sony. In a counter-strike, Yundi returned to Universal for $3 million, the exact figure that tempted Lang Lang to defect. Lang Lang’s “team” is said to be responsible for scurrilous rumours about Yundi’s personal life.
Now the Chinese media gleefully pits the pair against each other, like the Beatles versus the Stones. While flashy Lang Lang is the Party’s and international favourite, the shyer – also seen as more poetic – Yundi is the Chinese people’s favourite. As arts critic Norman Lebrecht summarises: “Lang Lang is a global brand, Yundi a national dish.”
The mention of Lang Lang’s name is the only time Yundi becomes mildly agitated. “I don’t know him, we’ve been at the same event but we’ve never met, I’ve never seen him play,” he says. “Talent comes through the work. There’s a lot of good talent out there and we support everybody.” He then adds, meaningfully, that his favourite pianists are Israeli.
As I see it, Lang Lang relishes the spotlight – and the rivalry. Yundi, on the other hand, has become increasingly adept at playing the marketing game, but would be happier without it. “Only music can define me,” he says passionately.
This may be so, but the flailing classical world is hyping him as a potential saviour, with all its focus being directed towards the Chinese market. Last year, 10 per cent of China’s music sales were classical, and the figure is rising, compared with three per cent in the United States.
“I’m very happy that so many children are learning the piano because of me,” Yundi says. “Music is magical and it shouldn’t be something kept far away in a museum. It’s like black and white in fashion, some people see it as boring, but it will never go out of style.”