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Pianist Lang Lang Tells Us His Tricks for Practicing in an NYC Apartment

By Nicole Levy | September 20, 2016 11:42am
 Pianist Lang Lang, who has attained a pop-star status rare for classical musicians, has just released a new album called
Pianist Lang Lang, who has attained a pop-star status rare for classical musicians, has just released a new album called "New York Rhapsody."
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Robert Ascroft

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice — and buy an apartment next door.

Superstar classical pianist Lang Lang, who was born in the small industrial town of Shenyang, China, now calls New York City home after buying an apartment that sits adjacent to the famous concert hall for $2.5 million in 2008, according to NYC Department of Finance records.

The 34-year-old's latest album, which was released last week, is billed as a love letter to the city's musical heritage. "New York Rhapsody" features new arrangements of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Jay Z's "Empire State of Mind" and Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere."

A New York sightseeing double-decker bus will be dedicated in Lang Lang's honor Tuesday, in celebration of his role as the city's "first-ever" cultural tourism ambassador. (But what about Taylor Swift, you might ask? She was named a "global welcome ambassador" in 2014, a "once-in-a-lifetime position" coinciding with her move to the Big Apple, a spokesperson for the five borough's official destination marketing organization told us.)

The city's tourism arm expects Lang's reputation to lure more visitors from China, where millions of children are said to play the piano as part of a phenomenon called “the Lang Lang effect."

We spoke to Lang on the eve of his celebratory bus ride from the Steinway piano showroom at 1133 Sixth Ave. in Midtown to the manufacturers' factory at 18-1 Steinway Place in Astoria:

You keep a Steinway concert grand piano in your apartment. Do your neighbors ever get upset when you play it at home?

My previous neighbor had a problem with my practicing. He called downstairs, to reception: 'Hey, please tell that guy to stop playing. It makes me nuts!'

In the evening, I tend to play Bach and Debussy, more beautiful, lyric music, so [my neighbors] probably don’t even know I’m practicing — they probably think they’re hearing a recording. That’s kind of my new trick. 

You grew up in Shenyang, China. If New Yorkers are looking for authentic Chinese food, where should they go?

In Queens, in Flushing, you have such good Chinese restaurants. Not recently, but in the last few years, I always go there to eat real authentic food. You really feel like you’re in China in Flushing. It’s so, so authentic.

How has New York City influenced your music?

I think New York City influenced me tremendously, because as a teenager, while I was studying in Philadelphia, I came to New York every weekend to play for musicians. I studied with many different musicians in New York at that time. My teacher Gary Graffman introduced me to conductors like Isaac Stern. 

Another thing about New York, you meet everyone here, whether from China or from Europe or from South America... You meet, and you get some kind of synergized idea together, and that really inspires you or somehow opens up your mind.

Tell about your latest record. What inspired it?

It all started with the collaboration with [jazz icon] Herbie Hancock in 2008 at the Grammys. The centerpiece of this 'New York Rhapsody' is around our collaboration in 2012. We made a recording together.

Everything else is built from that concept: we have [Aaron] Copeland, we have Dirty Blvd. combined with Bernsteins’ 'West Side Story' and we have a Lindsay Sterling duet with me on the Spider-Man theme. We also have Andra Day on an arrangement of “Empire State of Mind.” All the pieces are totally fresh arrangements of other compositions. You know everything, but everything’s new. It’s a musician’s record.

When you head out on the town at night to listen to music, where do you go? Any suggestions for the non-musician?

I’ve been to Blue Note recently. It’s a very interesting place, I really enjoyed it. It’s very casual, you can eat and enjoy the moment.

There’s, of course, the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. Obviously, there are smaller concerts at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, which are also more casual — you don’t need to sit so still there.

Even in classical music, people are starting to have more conversational, casual concerts these days in the evening to attract the younger generations or people who don't know classical music in their everyday life. I think those kinds of gigs connect with people.

You've just been named New York City's first-ever cultural ambassador, as part of its campaign to boost tourism between China and the U.S. How do Chinese citizens who haven't visited the Big Apple typically picture it? How did your view of it change after moving here?

In China, many, many years ago there was a very famous TV soap... It was called ['A Native of Beijing New York'] ... The TV soap talks about a Chinese family from the South part of China who live a very challenged life and become very successful in New York ... A lot of people want to come to New York after seeing this TV soap.

What I have learned is that New York is such a big city, and in the beginning, it’s going to be very challenging, it’s not going to be very smooth because it’s very competitive. But once you build up your friend circles, then your life changes.

And also there so many different parts [of the city] ... Some parts are more disadvantaged. That’s why for me it’s important to bring music classes into Harlem, and into east Brooklyn, because I believe music can change their lives.