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Into the no-go zone of China’s piano wars

Six times in eight interviews (so far), I have been asked leading questions by Shanghai journalists eager to pin me down on one side or other of the open war between Lang Lang and Yundi Li, the nation’s most famous pianists.

Lang Lang is the party and media favourite, a poster boy whose placards rise 20 stories high. Yundi is the pretty boy, a pop idol whose millions of Bieber-like young fans attack the Lang Lang army with every invective known to weibo.

To take sides in this conflict as a foreign observer is hazardous, to say the least. All the more reason for local media to try their hand at trapping a wayward opinion. All I have said so far, I think, is that Lang Lang risks losing his home patch to the passionate thrust of Yundi’s social media campaign and to his personal reticence, which appeals the the Chinese mistrust of flamboyance. Lang Lang is a global brand, Yundi a national dish. It’s game-on at every interview.

Who will wins the war is anyone’s guess, but it is raising classical passions in China to fever pitch.

SONY MASTERWORKS LANG LANG                                               or yundi

It’s your call.

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  1. Maybe the better answer is “Who Cares?” The world (and China) is big enough for the two of them. Enjoy their music-making, as it were.

    But if anyone wants to exploit this for commercial purposes…we had the ghastly Three Tenors. How about the Two Pianists? They could do a big, gaudy gala for their respective charitable foundations. Bring in Denis Matsuev and take it to Moscow while they’re at it.

    Meanwhile I’ll go listen to Yuja Wang or Marc-Andre Hamelin.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Agree, and I can’t wait to listen to Yuja Wang and Marc-Andrew Hamelin when they are older and wiser (maybe it’s starting to happen with Hamelin).

  2. Exactly, who cares? They’re not the only pianists in the world, and many others are far better musically. Yes, they need to do a big, gaudy gala and expand their egos :)

  3. While I don’t care much for either pianist, and music is not a competition (“competitions” not withstanding), I think this rivalry is terrific. It engages the public, brings attention (mostly benign) to classical music, and lifts it out of the concert hall and academy. Can anyone image such an “open war”, replete with gigantic billboards, in the West? Sadly no, here our beloved classical music just continues its decades-long slouch into rarefied irrelevance.

    • While it is wise for the column’s author to remain above the fray, I could not agree with @Dave T and am happy to applaud the rivalry and resultant media attention and public involvement. In the current era when classical music is in serious decline because its stewards think this sort of kerfuffle unseemly, we must take the music away from the ivory tower snobs and allow a populist outbreak now and then. It is the people themselves who might start with Yundi Li and end up discovering a lot more. One can hope.

    • Dave,

      I agree about lack of accurate marketing strategy, that makes classical music in West slouch into rarefied irrelevance. However, the image of classical pianist don’t sell so easy in West, and perhaps both pianists could be considered similar to a Richard Clayderman (I think they are all) or even a Liberace. Something far from the saviors of the rarefied irrelevance and even belonging to a different style. We cannot forget that classical music for younger generations, in East isn’t the thing that great-great-grandfather used to listen to. Accuracy of marketing formulas usually need to be different in both sides of the globe.

  4. Nora nekko says:

    Who cares. Even Yuja Wang is overrated, I think. She is much better on youtube. Let’s call them “youtube pianists”. Haha

  5. If these guys can raise such interest in classical music in China then they must be doing something right!

    Didn’t Liszt have a similar ‘war’ with Thalberg?

  6. Do they mistake music for football?

  7. Dear Mr. Lebrecht, you’d better stop promote sales for Mr. Li by bundling with Lang Lang. Obviously you know Mr. Li better than me. It’s funny to compare a web celebrity to a classical pianist, right? Lang Lang may not be a great musician, but it insults classical music itself if we put Li Yundi together with Lang Lang.

  8. Ghillie Forrest says:

    As a Canadian I env y the Chinese. In recent years our musical exports to the stages of the world include Yannick N-S, Angela Hewitt, Gerald Finlay, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Louis Lortie, Ben Heppner, and quite a few others making stellar careers in concert, opera, recital hall. If I stood at the busiest corner in Toronto — a relatively cultured city with a healthy musical life — for an hour and a half, I would be surprised to meet a soul who had heard of any of them.

    Alas, our”cultural” output also includes Buble and Bieber, heirs to La Belle Celine, whose names are known everywhere. Maybe it is divine retribution.

    But more alarming is that Lang Lang was booked for the National Arts Centre Gala last fall and the house was papered (and still not full). This fall there will be Paul Anka, and he has been sold out for weeks. So it’s not just our local talent that goes unrecognised in their own country; LL is a global superstar type, and they didn’t even come out for him. That’s alarming.

  9. Maybe sb has misled you. I suggest you paying more attention to English pianists than those of China. The situation in China is complicated and you may have the wrong source man.

  10. “It’s your call.”

    My call is that’s it’s the Silly Season.

  11. You could certainly see your expertise in the article you write.
    The arena hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

  12. Michael J. Stewart says:

    It’s very undignified and drags a sector of music into an arena that it should be well above. Or maybe, with Lang Lang and Yundi Li and their artist respective management teams it’s all only about money and fame?

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