Introducing: 60 Minutes All Access Learn More +
Unlimited, ad-free viewing of 60 Minutes archives, Overtime and extras
Toggle

Lang Lang: Piano Prodigy

Chinese Musician May Be Best Pianist Of His Generation

On a recent night in Hong Kong, Lang Lang captivated the sold-out house as he always does. All eyes were on center stage.

He's more than a mere virtuoso with elastic hands and dazzling dexterity. And he's more than just a supremely talented musician. Lang Lang is also a showman.

As Correspondent Bob Simon reports, Lang Lang is a spellbinding performer with a flair for drama –- strutting, swooning, and wrapping the crowd around his 10 nimble fingers.

"I love the audience, because I love the tension there. Because it seems like a lot of people watching, I mean, the creation of this wonderful work," says Lang Lang. "And then you are at the same time the interpreter. It's like building a bridge to their heart."

If Lang Lang sounds a little dreamy, he often plays that way too, with his eyes closed, head back, cast in a musical trance.

"Every time I play, I try to see the images. For example, I see something. I can see beautiful forest and everything's green," he says.

Lang Lang's not the only one who sees green. So does his record company, which has hyped him like a rock star. Part Mozart, part MTV, they're counting on Lang Lang to bring in a new generation of fans.

He embraces the limelight as he embraces everything – eagerly, and with a boyish enthusiasm, as Simon found out when they sifted through the delicacies at a Beijing street market.

"I think this animal can play really good piano," says Lang Lang, looking at an octopus.

Lang Lang's mind is never very far from his music, which helps when you're working with the best in the business -- as he did on a remarkable recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and maestro Daniel Barenboim.

"I can't describe him as a pianist, because you will only hear in my sentence the jealousy that I and all his colleagues feel," says Barenboim. "I'm sure he didn't show you, but you know, he has 11 fingers. He plays the piano like a cat with 11 fingers."

Lang Lang's acrobatic mastery of the keyboard is undisputed. But some critics find his showy style indulgent, and say those dreamy swoons get in the way of the music.

"There's something about Lang Lang's playing now where he calls attention to himself, to his own feelings. He's like a hammy actor," says Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for The New York Times.

He skewered Lang Lang in a ruthless review, calling his playing "slam bang crass."

Tommasini says, "I don't think it does Lang Lang any good to have his very powerful record company promoting him the way it is right now: 'The future of classical music has arrived, Deutsche Gramophone says. His name is Lang Lang.'

"That's a lot of pressure. People come to his concerts now expecting a catharsis, an epiphany, rather than a musical performance."

If it's a catharsis they want, Lang Lang is more than happy to provide it.

Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto, with one of the most haunting themes in all of classical music, has become his signature piece.

"This piece has driven at least one pianist mad. You know about that," asks Simon.

"Yeah, it drives me crazy," says Lang Lang, laughing.

"Rachmaninoff was this tortured Russian. And here you are...this very young Chinese man, who seems to be full of life and full of optimism, and full of happiness," says Simon. "How can you relate to this music?"

"I think when you play any piece, you are not you anymore," Lang Lang responded. "You are totally into the world of the composer's mind."

Prodigies have a way of silencing the skeptics, and wowing the crowds. Barely out of his teens, Lang Lang has arrived as an overnight sensation -- 22 years in the making.

What distinguishes him from the large number of very talented pianists? "I started early," he says.

Lang Lang began formal lessons when he was 3. At 5, barely able to reach the pedals, he was making Mozart look like child's play. And if you're wondering who raised such a boy, you've got to follow Lang Lang to the northern Chinese city of Shenyang.

Shenyang is Lang Lang's hometown, an old, overcrowded industrial city. But for China, not unprosperous. Like so much of the country, it's poised somewhere between its past, and its future. It's where 60 Minutes found Lang Lang's parents.

His father says he decided that Lang Lang was going to be an international star at the age of 2. "We planned to train him. When he was about 1 year old, I took him out on walks," recalls his father. "I would draw on the ground and teach him the musical scale. So it was like, today, he would learn 'Doh.' Tomorrow, he would learn 'Re' -– 'Doh, Re, Mi.'"

Lang Lang's father spent half his yearly salary – $300 – and bought his son a piano when he was a toddler. In fact, Lang Lang's destiny was conceived not long after he was. His mother played classical music to him while he was still in her womb.

She said she wanted to become a performer herself: "When I was young, that was my dream."

Lang Lang's mother wanted to be a professional dancer; his father hoped to travel the world as a musician. But their ambitions died an untimely death when they became victims of China's cultural revolution. Jobs weren't chosen; they were assigned. And so, like a generation of mothers and fathers living under China's one-child policy, they sacrificed everything and placed their dreams into the hands of their only hope.

It's a lot of responsibility, but Lang Lang says he "didn't feel the pressure at that time."

"I really didn't," he says. "Because I thought, I mean, I always played really good. And always got the first prize."

Lang Lang may have been the prodigy in his hometown of Shenyang, but if you want to play on the world stage, you've got to get out of town first.

When he was just 8, Lang Lang's parents, who were very happily married, decided to split up just for their son. His mother stayed home in Shenyang, and his father quit his job and took his boy to Beijing so Lang Lang could study in the finest music academy in China.

Their sacrifice paid off. Lang Lang was a standout at the Beijing Conservatory and, at 13, he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians. But a child doesn't leave his mother without leaving a few scars, too.

She remembers saying goodbye to her son. "At the time, Lang Lang was very small. It was very hard to say goodbye to him. I can never forget. His mouth was quivering, and then he and I both started up," she recalls. "He cried and I cried. But for his work, for the piano that he loves so much, I let him go."

Lang Lang said goodbye not just to his mother, but also to the comfortable life he lead in Shenyang. In Beijing, he and his father lived for six years in a dingy, unheated apartment, sharing a bathroom with three other families. Was it a painful move? Obviously. But his parents knew that an even bigger move was inevitable.

"You know since you play piano and classical music, this is the road," says Lang Lang, who, at 15, followed that road to America.

He moved with his father to Philadelphia, where he'd won a music scholarship. Then, he received his big break. He was tapped as a last-minute replacement at Chicago's summer music festival. At 17, Lang Lang found himself being introduced by the legendary violinist Isaac Stern.

"I thought play the best in my life at that time. Absolutely the best," recalls Lang Lang. "They all jumped right after the last note. And I had some good reaction before, but never this kind of [reaction]."

It changed his life forever. International engagements came pouring in, and Lang Lang hasn't looked back. He plays in 150 concerts a year. But the rewards are beyond measure. At 21, Lang Lang performed a rite of passage into the upper reaches of classical music – a solo debut at Carnegie Hall.

Not bad for a boy from Shenyang.

But our story doesn't end there. Before the night was over, Lang Lang brought to the stage a special guest, someone who dreamed long ago of playing abroad. His father.

With his traditional Chinese fiddle, Lang Lang's father accompanied his son in a finale, the likes of which Carnegie Hall had never heard before.

"I think a Chinese folk player, play with his son in Carnegie Hall. I think it's probably the most exciting thing in both of our lives," says Lang Lang.