Earlier this month Lang Lang performed to more than 5,000 ecstatic patrons at London’s Albert Hall. Less obvious was why his next gig was in a small chapel in Oxford. The answer? The Shenyang-born pianist was at St Peter’s College to receive an Honorary Fellowship from Oxford University and give a masterclass to three pupils in front of an audience of 300.
I am one of those fortunate to attend. It is astonishing to see the global superstar here in the same chapel in which I myself have performed. St Peter’s, though frankly one of the smaller colleges, is “up and coming” with notable alumni including the current governor of the Bank of England.
At pre-masterclass cocktails Lang Lang mixes enthusiastically. He is taller than I expect. He is accompanied by the legendary Dame Fanny Waterman who founded the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition 50 years ago this year, and for which Lang Lang is global ambassador. She is smaller than I expect, but at age 93 still displays an intellect and sharpness during lively discussions.
We proceed to the chapel where the degree is conferred. St Peter’s Master Mark Damazer highlights not only Lang Lang’s musical contribution but also the work of his foundation with young people. Lang Lang seems genuinely excited and after a short acceptance speech it is down to business.
The first pupil plays Beethoven’s Appassionata. It is vigorous but uninspiring. Lang Lang surprisingly delves straight into the basics. He is unhappy with the introduction and counts the timing in semi-quavers “ta-ta-ta-ta-TA” like a sotto voce machine gun. He regularly dives in to play a passage himself and the difference is palpable. He is so engaged he has to be reminded to move on but it is unclear how much this particular pupil has taken in.
Secondly we have Debussy’s Reflet dans l’eau. The initial effort is so constricted I feel quite good about my own attempt to play the same piece in the same venue some years before. And yet within 20 minutes, during which he hardly plays a note, Lang Lang transforms the performance into one of shimmering delicacy, full of nuance. His arms gesture over the keyboard to convey the wave-like rises and falls so necessary to communicate this work. He offers swooshing interjections. The result: a performance of true metamorphosis.
Lastly we are treated to Liszt’s Funerailles. From the outset it is clear that this performer is in a different league. Some years older than the first two candidates the piano sounds completely different in his capable hands; genuine weight in the bass and clarity of sound in the upper registers. Lang Lang is quick to acknowledge it too and resists the temptation to meddle. His approach is to encourage and to discuss points of nuance almost as an equal. Who knows, one day Carson Becke may himself be performing at the Albert Hall…
We run out of time but Lang Lang seems be to enjoying the experience so much he could have continued for hours. And as the Master of the college later told the Financial Times, the major challenge of the day was to help him leave.
“The audience want to thank him, to touch him, and cameras pop out from all corners. It takes half an hour to get him out to his car in one piece,” recalls Damazer.
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