Lang Lang: Center stage of a melodic life

Pianist Lang Lang has a Summer Song to share with us -- and a Father's Day story all his own. Seth Doane paid him a visit: 

Thirty-five-year-old world-renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang wants to change the whole concept of classical piano. He's brought his emotional, dramatic style to audiences across the globe: from New York's Lincoln Center, to this night on a very special stage: his hometown of Shenyang, China.

He explained his concert rundown to Doane:  "Tonight we will start with the 'Cuban Dance' [by Ernesto Lecuona], and then we will have this beautiful night music, and then we will take 'Turkish March.' And then we will have 'Superman.'"

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Pianist Lang Lang with correspondent Seth Doane.

CBS News

If he's a celebrity elsewhere, he's a superstar in Shenyang, a city of eight million in China's northeast, where Doane met him at a CD signing ahead of the performance.

When asked how it feels to be home, Lang said, "It feels really warm. I left my hometown when I was nine, so I'm always missing my home."

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As a child, Lang Lang and his family moved from Shenyang, China to Beijing so he could study piano.

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A promising young pianist, his parents moved him to Beijing as a child so he could work with the best teacher they could afford. He lived with his father in a $20-a-month apartment, while his mother, a telephone operator, sent what money she could to support them. It was a rough start.

"The first year was very, very difficult," said Lang. "And I got fired by the piano teacher." He said she claimed Lang had "No talent."

Devastated, he stopped practicing, which sent his father into a fit of rage.

"My father just totally went nuts," Lang recalled. "He's like, you know, 'You just got fired. And you're still not serious about your playing, your life. And you should kill yourself.'"

"Your dad said you should kill yourself?" Doane asked. "Was he serious?"

"Yeah, I think he was serious."

When Doane met Lang's dad just before the Shenyang performance, he was asked not to discuss the suicide demands.

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Lang Lang and his father, Lang Guoren.

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"Looking back, do you think, 'I might have pushed my son too much'?" Doane asked.

"I think I inspired him to love piano," Lang Guoren replied. "We became partners in our career."

Today, father and son are often side-by-side, and Lang Lang says he almost understands. "During the Cultural Revolution, which is my parent's generation, they didn't have a chance to do what they like to do," he said.

In Communist Party founder Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, Chinese intellectuals and artists were sent to villages to work on farms. Jobs were assigned, and dreams dashed. So, his parents poured their dreams into him, spending half-a-year's salary to buy Lang Lang a piano.

As a kid he remembered being inspired by a 1986 performance by Russian Vladimir Horowitz, which he watched on TV. [It was broadcast in America live on CBS' "Sunday Morning."]

There were also the far more childlike sources of inspiration, such as the Tom & Jerry cartoon, "The Cat Concerto."

Borrowing some of Tom & Jerry's flare for the dramatic, Lang Lang went on to study at Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Music Academy, surprising peers with his love for Beethoven: "They were like: 'Euhhh… That's like my great-grandmother's favorite. That guy's dead, right?' I say, 'Yeah, yeah.' So, you know, from the very beginning I thought, 'One day, I need to change this image.'"

So when he got the chance to play along with heavy-metal group Metallica at the 2014 Grammys, he took it.

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Pianist Lang Lang performs with the heavy metal group Metallica at the 2014 Grammy Awards.

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"You like the showmanship aspect of this," said Doane.

"Yeah, absolutely. Because I think that sometimes, people will think about classical musicians, they think we are professors."

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Pianist Lang Lang.

CBS News

Nothing against professors, of course. In fact, inspiring the next generation is one of Lang Lang's focuses these days.

According to Lang, there are 50 million children in China learning the piano.

"So, you are a role model to an awful lot of kids in this country," said Doane.

"Yeah. Sometimes I felt that I'm in charge of a huge kindergarten!"

At the performance in Shenyang, 100 kids, ages six to ten, played by his side, though perhaps not with the same effortless appearance.

Lang Lang says, in kids, he recognizes the same hopes and dreams his father saw in him.

For a quick lesson from Lang Lang on playing arpeggios, click on the video player below"

Lang Lang Lessons #3 by Lang Lang on YouTube

      
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