Lang Lang is widely recognised as one of the most accomplished classical pianists of his generation. He is also one of the most famous classical musicians in the world. His popularity in the UK has been boosted by his appearance as one of the two judges on Channel 4’s popular program The Piano. The other judge is celebrity singer-songwriter, Mika.
The Piano, described by The Guardian as “the most uplifting talent show ever”, attracted 1.7m viewers and was the most popular show on the evenings it ran. The show’s grand finale featured pianists selected from auditions on railway station pianos. Getting into the spirit of the run-up to the finale, Lang Lang recently played at St Pancras Station.
The performance on Friday 10 March 2023 has been widely reported as impromptu, but seeing as a Channel 4 film crew was present, it would be more accurate to describe it as unannounced. Be that as it may, Lang Lang delighted commuters who chanced on the scene. He started with a selection from the Flight of the Bumblebee (Rimsky-Korsakov), before telling the audience that he was very nervous about his first performance on a station platform. He then played part of Liebesträume (Liszt).
To close, Lang Lang was joined by his wife, the German-Korean pianist Gina Alice Redlinger. They played Hungarian Dance No 5 (Brahms) as a duet. Last year a video of Lang and Redlinger playing the same piece at Steinway Hall for Classic FM went viral. The video has 1.6m YouTube views, which is good going for a classical performance. MentatYP notes: “Lang Lang takes quite a few liberties on the tempo, as one would in a solo, so Gina does a phenomenal job of adjusting her playing on the fly. Bravo”
Lang Lang’s appearance on The Piano may have boosted his popularity in the UK, but he has long been seen as an anachronism: a respected classical pianist with the celebrity appeal of a rock star. Emma Pomfret of The Times, London, has noted, “I can think of no other classical artist who has achieved Lang Lang’s broad appeal without dumbing down”.
A quick run through the highlights of Lang Lang’s classical music career is not possible. They are too numerous. Nonetheless, a lot of Lang’s broad appeal comes from his attempts to reach beyond his core classical audience, so I’ll mention a few of these. He was the featured soloist on score of the Painted Veil (2006), which won a Golden Globe, he played on Mike Oldfield’s LP Music of the Spheres (2008), he played with Herbie Hancock at the 2008 Grammy Awards, he played One with Metallica at the 2014 Grammy Awards, he has recorded pieces for the video game Gran Turismo 5, at the 2015 Grammys he played with Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer, and, in September 2021, he performed both solo and with Coldplay (on Clocks) at Global Citizen Live in Central Park.
The grand finale of The Piano, featuring the show’s amateur-pianist finalists, was filmed at the Royal Festival Hall, which is a far cry from competing with announcements and the sound of trains while playing at a station. By all accounts, Lang enjoyed his appearance at St Pancras Station, even if the distractions necessitated extra concentration.
The finale of The Piano aired on 15 March 2023. Christine Champion, who was waiting for a train when she came across Lang’s St Pancras performance was quoted in The Guardian: “His total immersion in his expression, how he leaned into the music. I found it quite emotionally engaging. It was a wonderful shared diversion.”