Gary Graffman, former head of Curtis and a very remarkable pianist in his own right, has been getting his head around some of the negative reviews his protégé has lately received. Too courteous and reasonable to take issue with individual criticisms, Gary places them in the broader context of the extraordinary ascent of a unique talent. (I do wonder, though, what he makes of the recent Prokofiev 3rd.)
Gary has given a wide-ranging interview to Elijah Ho. Here’s a brief extract:
Graffman: When Lang Lang was thirteen, he sent me a recording of his playing of the Chopin Second Concerto, with which he had won the Tchaikovsky competition for young artists in Asia. I thought the playing was beautiful, he was very talented, but of course, many, many people send me these sort of things. So I thanked him for the video, told him I enjoyed it, but said it had nothing to do with entering Curtis. I told him he had to come and audition and play the repertoire that was required of everybody else. He responded, saying he had already applied, and included a video of his playing the 24 Chopin Etudes. Now these were quite unbelievable (laughs)!
Some things were unformed then, and some things have developed over time, but nevertheless, this was a super, major talent. You know, when he came to Curtis, within six months, he played a student recital that included the Schumann Fantasy. Now usually, as you know, this is a piece for older folks, and I remember he had some technical problems – it’s incredibly difficult to have a good in-concert batting average with those leaps in the second movement (laughs) – but everything was impeccable and beautiful.
Yes, people can have a difference of opinion. People forget that at the time, when he was simply a very talented kid who may have had a chance at a career, that he had no box-office! Nobody had heard of him, and nobody would have known to attend any his concerts. And yet, every conductor that he played for – from the most flamboyant to the strictest, and everybody else in between – said, ‘My God, this is one of the biggest talents we’ve heard in years!’.
The way it’s been done for years, when conductors hear a young talent they like, they’ll say, ‘I would like to hear them again in a year’ or ‘I’ll put them in a youth-concert’. But that wasn’t the case with Lang Lang. Every one of these people changed their major programs for the following season to get him in. I had never seen a thing like that in my life! Everybody naturally criticized him for this and for that, but in the end, these people could see through it all; they saw what was really there.