Gary Graffman: Lang Lang is ‘a super, major talent’

Gary Graffman: Lang Lang is ‘a super, major talent’


norman lebrecht

November 18, 2013

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.


  • Sanda Schuldmann says:

    Loe is blind they say, in this case is also deaf

  • Sanda Schuldmann says:

    Meant to write LOVE not loe!

  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    I respectfully suggest that everyone, including or especially Sanda Schuldman, read the entire interview (excellent, IMHO) from which I learned a few things even though I have known GG for over 30 years. I certify that he is neither blind nor deaf and continues to be an astute evaluator of artistic talent, especially at the piano. I know that his former students (including L2) still seek his advice on matters musical and otherwise. Kudos to Sony for the release of the remarkable Gary Graffman set.

    • ed says:

      Thank you for lending your perspective to this. I hope at least some people read and get it.

    • Thank you, Robert. Mr. Graffman was a pianist of the first order and would not merely be an advocate for his student if he did not believe that there was something extraordinary there. Lang Lang is not my favorite, but the vitriol against him speaks of a jealousy mostly. Lang knows how to manage his career. And he is a professional. Not a bad thing.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Thank you for suggesting to read the entire interview. It is indeed full of insights.

  • Daniel Farber says:

    People said the same things about Ozawa at a similar stage of his career: it was true, too, but unfortunately Ozawa didn’t “grow in office”. Whether L2 continues on his present, brilliant, musically underdeveloped plateau or begins to expand his musical (and emotional) horizons is the question. I wonder, too, whether the brilliant marketing that has brought him great prominence (and great wealth) at a relatively early age may have served to undermine the development of his talents.

  • batten says:

    Lang Lang auditioned for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra when I was an administrator. He played a single, simple Brahms Intermezzo. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. I agree with Graffman — he is a spectacular talent who makes some poor choices.

  • Phil says:

    I would not deny his talent. But talent is not ‘product’. Sport, as well as the arts is littered with folk who have blazing talents, yet the results they produce in the end are sometimes not actually as ‘good’ as folk with a lesser talent, for various reasons: temperament, intellect, integrity (professional not personal) – all of which are shortcomings of Lang Lang imvho.

  • MacroV says:

    I don’t think anybody disputes that he’s an extraordinarily capable pianist, as good as any. But there are lots of pianists with great skill; at some point you want to hear compelling music-making. Maybe if we saw a little less glitz, less “rivalry” with Yundi (the world – and China – is big enough for the two of them and others), and more focus on music…

  • m2n2k says:

    He is a tremendously talented musician who unfortunately sometimes crosses the line into exaggeration, bad taste, indulgence and such – similarly to Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, but perhaps to even more extreme degree. Most of the time, however, he is still more interesting and exciting to listen to than the majority of those contemporary pianists who play everything properly and correctly.

  • DavisA says:

    Interesting. Who are we to believe? One of the great pianist and teachers of his generation? Or the carping critics who can’t play themselves?

    • shenyeh says:

      Great point! Very well put!

    • MacroV says:

      Being a capable instrumentalist is not a prerequisite for judging the talents or effectiveness of a performer. This argument is just another way by which to short-circuit arguments or deflect criticism. Plenty of great musicians (and stars in other fields) have been horrible judges of talent or promoters of mediocrity – Bernstein, for one – for reasons best known to them. Just as the best athlete isn’t necessarily the best coach. That said, I am in no way questioning Gary Graffman’s credibility in his assessment of Lang Lang, who I think we can all agree is a fabulous talent, even if his taste is not ours.

  • I remember when Maazel said that Bocelli is a great tenor.

    Graffman’$ $tatement $eem$ very $imilar.