Meet Dr Lang Lang

Meet Dr Lang Lang


norman lebrecht

May 20, 2015

lang lang doctor

As of today, the Chinese pianist is an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts of New York University.

The point being?

lang lang doctor2

To devalue the credibility of an NYU PhD.

What in socks has he done to earn a doctorate?


  • GVNL says:

    I think this holds for many honorary doctorates: that they are given for other reasons than scientific excellence – legitimate other reasons, though. I don’t think anyone has ever really felt any doctoral degree to be devalued because of an honorary degree as such. There is a point to be made about doctoral degrees devaluating over the years, but not for the reason of honorary doctorates.

  • BillBC says:

    You don’t understand how honorary doctorates work in the US. They are given to all sorts of people, and even to non-people:
    “The darling of Sesame Street, Kermit the Frog was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters on May 19, 1996 from Southampton College, New York, where he also gave a commencement speech.”

  • Stereo says:

    That sums up the USA!

  • CDH says:

    Commentary on Lang Lang has gone from disdainful to almost abusive on this site.

  • Musicmatters says:

    What has Lang Lang done to deserve an honorary doctorate from New York University? The questions is WHAT HE WILL DO for NYU now that he has it: He will attract rich Chinese donors to New York University. Please remember: NYU is primarily in the real estate business — Education is only their side-line. NYU is buying up Greenwich Village – building by building — so they need Chinese cash to make their property purchases.

  • BillBC says:

    Commentary on the U.S. too, it seems

    • Alexander says:

      He’s not an honorary fellow of the University of Oxford but of one of its colleges, St Peter’s. The colleges can award honorary fellowships to whomever they like; it is not a decision taken at university level. Unfortunately a lot of people, including in the media, don’t understand the relationship between the university and its colleges, societies, and permanent private halls.

  • TBP says:

    “Sums up the USA” ??
    Do a quick google search for honorary doctorates given by non-USA institutions.
    I guess then you might write “That sums up the WORLD.”

  • JASMINE says:

    but i remember lang lang received honorary fellowship of Oxford

    • norman lebrecht says:

      shame on them, too.

      • JASMINE says:

        LOL,lang lang received honorary doctorate Royal College of Music and birmingham city university

      • Michael Moran says:

        Lang Lang is certainly a fine pianist and has done a great deal to rejuvenate a lively feeling for classical music among the young – a vital contribution. Liszt and Paganini were both consummate showmen too but more importantly artists. For me Lang Lang is not a creative, interpretative artist but a brilliant classical musical communicator. And that is excellent in the fraught classical climate.

        Now think of that profound musician and great artist of the piano Grigory Sokolov. Hear both in concert and your perspective on pianists will change utterly. One is a true artist the other not.There are pianists and there is Sokolov. But he will never be ‘rewarded’ in this academic way. Too much of an artist and too self-effacing. The DGG contract will reveal his artistry to many more but he moves in a different philosophical firmament to Lang Lang. As did Richter, Gilels, Brendel, Curzon, Rubinstein. Possibly not Horowitz! Modesty as a quality is so very not 2015.

        Also you might watch the Barenboim Beethoven Masterclass with Lang Lang as a rare ‘student’ on DVD. Instructive concerning both pianists indeed and for much the same reasons as above.

    • Alexander says:

      Of St Peter’s College, Oxford, not of the university itself.

    • Olassus says:

      Herbert von Karajan got one too, or a doctorate. He flew in on his Learjet to pick it up and piloted right back out after the ceremony, skipping the festivities. At some point later, if memory serves, he made up for the rudeness by bringing the Berlin Phil to the Sheldonian.

  • Richard Carlisle says:

    Fine Arts????? Make that “Fine Showmanship” and with Jackie Evancho outclassing him in that category … SHE should have received the Showmanship Doctorate … Fine Arts … really.

  • Max Grimm says:

    It seems to be the season for honorary doctorates from American institutions. Kyung-Wha Chung received hers from the New England Conservatory 3 days ago.

  • Richard Carlisle says:

    Fine Arts??? Make that Fine Showmanship … and since Jackie Evancho outclasses him in that category ,,, send the Fine Showmanship Doctorate in her direction.

  • YR says:

    As others above have said, there is some misunderstanding here regarding what honorary doctorates are about. First of all, this is not a PhD, so there is no “devaluation of NYU PhD” here. Second, those honorary degrees are not intended to acknowledge and reward some extraordinary achievements by the university’s standards, they are mainly a way for the institution to get attention, by associating itself with famous people. It’s similar to how stores/restaurants/etc. give free service to celebrities (or even pay them for using their merchandise) as a method of advertising.

    Fact- this was covered in this website.

  • Carly says:

    It’s not only in the US, please stop embarrassing yourselves and go read up about honorary degrees. Lang Lang has in fact received two honorary doctorates from two UK institutions, Royal College of Music and Birmingham City University (this was presented by none other than Prince Charles). He also holds a honorary fellowship at Oxford University. And he received a honorary doctorate from Manhattan School of Music, another elite music institution.

  • Will says:

    If all you ‘carping’ lot would bother to actually LISTEN to Lang Lang and forget all the visuals and the ‘image’ nonsense, you would realise that he is a fantastic pianist who is also a deeply sincere musician. It’s about time to stop slagging off this truly inspiring phenomenon of our time.

    • Andrew Condon says:

      I’m afraid I can’t stand all his emoting. “Truly inspiring phenomenon” is a bit OTT. Give me Gilels, Curzon, Brendel, Askenazy, Pollini et al any day. He is not in their league IMHO

      • CDH says:

        That’s as may be, but to hear some of the dialogue around here you would think he could barely make it through Chopsticks. He is a very proficient pianist, and he has a personality that appeals across genre lines. I gather crossover is the equivalent of mortal sin to Mr. Lebrecht, but it does not in Lang Lang’s case mean that he cannot sit down at the piano and turn out some nicely-felt Chopin. His capital crime appears to be that he is an entertainer. I guess that’s a hangin’ offence around here.

        The YouTube Queen and that improvising South American are no Brendel, Ashkenazy, Gilels, etc. but they seem to be beyond criticism in these precincts. Go figure.

        • Anon says:

          Amen, if Norman had any pianistic perspective, he’d realize that Lang Lang and Lisitsa are of the same ilk, pianistically. Both immature, percussive players. She, however, lacks Lang Lang’s sense of exaggerated detail, so, we could even say he is “more interesting.”

    • kuoirad says:

      I don’t know much about Lang Lang’s playing, but what you’re describing sounds to me like why I am not a fan of Josh Bell. Plays just fine, I like *listening* to him, but *cannot stand* to watch him. Drives me nuts.

      • Andrew Condon says:

        I agree entirely. Bell’s constant writhing and emoting is a real irritant, especially given his obvious talent. Heifetz and Milstein would be turning in their graves if they ever saw the way he plays.

  • JanHus says:

    Cambridge or/and Harvard should give an honorary doctorate in cultural sophistication to Norman Lebrecht.

  • Mikey says:

    It would be important to note that the honorary degree does not, in fact, make him “Doctor” Lang Lang. An honorary degree does not confer that title on the recipient.

    • Alexander says:

      I’m not sure about the USA, but in the UK a person who holds an honorary doctorate certainly *can* call himself “Dr”. Some universities recommend that the person thus honoured declines use of the title, but that recommendation is not binding. If somebody is admitted to the degree of a doctor that person is a doctor, whether the admission was in respect of his having passed the requirements for the award of a substantive doctorate or honoris causa or, at the ancient universities of England and Ireland, by incorporation or, at Oxford, by diploma (a means for conferring degrees upon, typically, heads of state and the chancellor of the university).

  • Mark Morrison says:

    Like it or not — and I am clearly NOT thrill by LL’s theatrics which, incidentally, have diminished greatly over the years — Lang Lang has brought many people, especially young ones, into the concert hall. Some of them may have even attended other classical music events as a result. His records have goosed classical music sales. Both of these accomplishments clearly fall into the, “what has he done?” category. In addition, while LL is far from my favorite pianist, he does has chops and he plays some things very well indeed. If one closes his eyes during LL’s concerts/recitals, he can be very enjoyable.

    As to this anti-American snobbery, clearly England has issued academic honorary titles to LL and, I’m almost sure, to other non-stellar lights. As to other pianists, I was a huge fan of Gilels and, to a lesser extent of Curzon and Ashkenazy. As to Pollini, I’m definitely not a fan and I find Brendel both pretentious and soporific, something I would never say of LL.

  • Ray Richardson says:

    Really the pot calling the kettle black. The sensational nature of this blogs headlines is getting far worse than any of LL’s showmanship!

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    Andre Previn said this of Lang Lang in a Guardian interview

    “It’s a circus act, you know? Why doesn’t he just come out and juggle? He’s an amazing pianist, but I can’t watch, not for one minute. And yet he is probably the biggest box-office success in the world, for a classical musician.”

  • Milka says:

    Either the true point is missed or purposely ignored– it is not about Lang Lang
    or Chung it is about money always about money . Give Chung or Lang Lang an
    honorary whatever and wait for the influx of Asian students all thinking they can buy
    western culture …they bring in the money ..there is many a music school that
    survives only by the influx of Asian students all dreaming of being the next rich famous
    Lang Lang and if a music school in the western world is the way to buy into that fame
    so be it.Music is used as a stalking horse , it could be real estate for all the difference .

    • JanHus says:

      while your “privileged, culturally advanced” West is praying that the money flow from Asia to save them from bankruptcy. or at least to save their screwed education system. be thankful, Milka

  • Alexander says:

    This in no way devalues a PhD awarded to somebody who has successfully submitted and defended a thesis which makes a substantial and original contribution to knowledge. The doctorate is honorary and everybody knows that. At Oxford the Head of Mechanical Workshops at the Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory was recently awarded an honorary master’s degree. I do not think that this devalues my own degree from Oxford, for which I actually had to pass exams.

  • Blair Tindall says:

    May I bring the weird US facts of this phenom into the discussion?

    An “honorary doctorate” in the US is traditionally awarded in conjunction with the person/scholar being hired to give a commencement speech at a college graduation. It’s part of the pomp and circumstance. Very few accomplished people awarded such would call himself or herself “Dr.” as a result.

    My father, an American historian, was awarded several honorary doctorates and found it flattering. But had he not already earned a real PhD, he would never have referred to himself as “Dr.,” and indeed he didn’t. He called himself “George.”

    That’s all.

    Whatever you think of Lang Lang, his appearance brought interest to the university involved. Good for him. Given the holy horror of arts funding (outside of administrators’ and soloists’ fees) these days that seems a great thing!

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    Many of the negative comments here are quite hypocritical as they originate from a people who without question give honorific titles like “king”, “queen” based on nothing more than birth while denying an honorific title to a musician who worked is fingers off to become the most famous pianist of his generation.

  • Navas says:

    Laughable that you think prestigious colleges give out honorary degrees on that basis.

    Besides, wealth does not equate philanthropy. You need to read more.

  • Patrick says:

    So much hate….

  • william osborne says:

    I notice there are several videos on YouTube of Lang Lang with over a million hits – including a Beethoven piano concerto. He’s obviously doing something for the field.

    Sometimes classical music has a troubling image of itself and what it’s supposed to be. Musicologist Pamela Potter has written about this at some length, the way we expect classical music to be stolid and Germanic. See:

    If a pianist like Lang Lang were European, I suspect he wouldn’t be facing such opprobrium from hardcore classical fans who too often seem to unconsciously formulate an identity of cultural and ethnic superiority around their appreciation of classical music.

    Occasionally I see comments about Lang Lang that remind me of a racist portrayal of Gustav Mahler, who became the General Music Director of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1898, replacing Hans Richter, who had led the orchestra for the previous 23 years. (The Vienna Philharmonic refers to the Richter years as its “golden age.”) Mahler’s tenure was troubled in part by a continual pattern of anti-Semitic harassment and he left the orchestra after three years. Using his own words and quoting those of Max Kalbeck, Wilhelm Jerger, the orchestra’s chairman during the Third Reich, drew a comparison of Richter and Mahler that reveals the anti-Semitic attitudes Mahler confronted. The similarities to the descriptions often seen about Lang Lang are interesting:

    “A completely different type of personality entered with Mahler, ‘as there’ — to speak with Max Kalbeck’s vivid words — ‘instead of the tall blond bearded Hun, who placed himself wide and calm before the orchestra like an unshakable, solidly walled tower, there was a gifted shape [begabte Gestalt] balancing over the podium, thin, nervous, and with extraordinarily gangly limbs.’ In fact, a greater contrast was really not possible. There the patriarchal Hans Richter in his stolidity and goodness, and his extremely hearty and collegial solidarity with the orchestra, and here Gustav Mahler, oriented to the new objectivity [neue Sachlichkeit] –nervous, hasty, scatty, intellectualish [sic]-the music a pure matter of his overbred intellect.”

    See: Wilhelm Jerger, “Erbe und Sendung“ (Wien: Wiener Verlag Ernst Sopper & Karl Bauer, 1942) p. 87.

    So we hear that Lang Lang is nervous, hasty, scatty, intellectualish, thin, nervous, and gangly,” – a “Chinaman” who presents nothing we want to expect from the “unshakable, solidly walled tower of classical music.”
    Classical music is dying from pretension, which is one of the reasons Lang Lang has helped revive interest in the art.

    • Andrew Condon says:

      I’m afraid I have to take issue with your comment that “if he were European he wouldn’t be facing such opprobrium…”. I couldn’t care less what he looks like or where he is from. When such an esteemed artist as Mr Previn describes him as a “circus act” as mentioned above, people should take note and listen. LL gets in the way of the music in an unacceptable way – the true greats put the music first and themselves very much second. Quite simply, would I rush out to buy a CD of his Beethoven op 111 or Schubert Bb – I think not

    • El Grillo says:

      To compare Lang Lang to Mahler shows what classical music has become.
      Who Mahler is, and what he represents in art and as part of the human condition already has lasted longer than any of a group of celebrities that

      I don’t even know why I would continue,

      And no, that he’s Chinese is perhaps use for publicity and marketing rather than he’s discriminated against, I think.

      You can take Lang Lang out of the music scene and there’s no great loss (whether there’s gain, people can decide for themselves); but without Mahler classical music wouldn’t be the same.

      I see Lang Lang as a prime example of a whole hoard of “celebrities” using the repertoire that’s already there the same way corporations exploit and deplete resources, resources that are dwindling; all for image, addiction, money and superficiality.

      And it’s only a testament to the beauty we were given that it still shines, regardless.

      • william osborne says:

        You miss the point, of course. It has less to do with the art created by Lang Lang or Mahler, and more to do with the ways prejudice shapes perception. It seems that many of those who most strongly identify with classical music, tie its appreciation to their own sense of cultural and ethnic superiority.

        • El Grillo says:

          Yeah of course, when I have a different opinion I missed the point. There are other Chinese pianists that are more respected and one wouldn’t think twice about mentioning whether they’re Chinese or whether they come from planet Ukon, and I’m not going to continue this discussion. I’m also not saying that there isn’t prejudice going against orientals. But somehow I don’t see them missing from the classical music scene as other cultures.

          And if people actually strongly identified with classical music, then it would be about the beauty, and that transcends any all the boundaries you’re listing. There are enough of such people, and that’s that.

          To sit there and fuss about how “those people” are supposed to be thinking in order to miss the whole point, when it’s not even about “those people..” all to avoid what the music is doing despite all of such fussing.

          It’s easy to try to politicize something that transcends politics, all to void making yourself vulnerable as a human being and hide behind what “those people” are supposed to be doing.

          • william osborne says:

            You are mistaken, to say there Chinese pianists more respected than Lang Lang. His following far outpaces any other pianist in the world, hence the questions that surround the opprobrium he faces from a small segment of the classical music community.

        • Max Grimm says:

          “prejudice shapes perception”
          Indeed it does…in more ways than one and on all ends of the spectrum.

  • herrera says:

    So much hate, and envy, and pettiness. Oh I forgot, it’s classical music.

  • Federico Giuntoli says:

    I prefer doctors “laboris causa”…

  • william osborne says:

    You are mistaken, to say there Chinese pianists more respected than Lang Lang. His following far outpaces any other pianist in the world, hence the questions that surround the opprobrium he faces from a small segment of the classical music community.

    • Andrew Condon says:

      So is Mr Previn wrong to describe LL as a “circus act”?

      • william osborne says:

        No, not at all. Liszt and Paganini were circus acts too. It’s an old tradition in classical music. Maybe something we could even use a bit more of these days. It’s like this guy from China is showing classical musicians in the West how to live again. The boundaries of good taste are the death knell of great art.

  • Milka says:

    That he is the most famous living Chinese pianist is a given .If as Musicmatters observes he by receiving an honorary degree will attract rich Chinese donors to the school it would be deplorable , one only has to look at what
    has happened to Vancouver . To sell ones’ soul for the Chinese buck Janhus,
    is indeed a high price to pay for whatever survival .One notices that Chung has also
    received a degree from NEC .One wonders why ?

  • El Grillo says:

    Sorry, I said I wasn’t going to respond anymore, but I was already quite amused going to the store before reading the next responses:

    Just to show how easy it is to make a “point” about supposed prejudices.

    “A completely different type of personality entered with fill-in-blank product (let’s say it’s fizzy carbonated drinks), ‘as there’ — to speak with Max Kalbeck’s vivid words — ‘instead of the tall blond bearded different-kind-of-libation, who placed itself wide and calm before the eyes of those reading the list of drinks at whatever restaurant like an unshakable, solidly walled tower, there was a gifted shape [begabte Gestalt] balancing over the list of libations, thin, nervous, and with extraordinarily gangly thin glasses to contain it but with fizz.’ In fact, a greater contrast was really not possible. There the patriarchal blond different kind of libation in its stolidity and goodness, and his extremely hearty and collegial solidarity with the menu, and here the wonders of fizz, oriented to the new objectivity [neue Sachlichkeit] –nervous, hasty, scatty, intellectualish [sic]-the delight a pure matter of his overbred intellect.”

    And you can research which fizzy drink that’s being discriminated against has cornered the market…

  • Ellingtonia says:

    I would suggest that he has done more in 15 minutes of music making than you have done in a lifetime of “writing”…………

  • John Borstlap says:

    What could be added to this hail strom of abuse? LL obviously is a gifted Chinese, but also a product of the 19C star cult which takes centre stage instead of the music. And that is playing into the hands of the forces in the field who see classical music as a cadavre to parasitize upon. One could notice on one of LL’s earlier versions of his website that he referred to the repertoire he plays, as ‘my music’ that he wanted to share with his audiences. That says it all.

  • Blair Tindall says:

    The first time I heard Lang Lang play, in the early 2000s when I was subbing in the SFS, my jaw dropped. I hated his playing (it was a bangable piece, maybe Grieg). Well, sometimes it takes awhile to gain deeper understanding.

    Classical needs rock stars. Lang Lang is one. Even if you don’t love his playing, which I still don’t, anyone has to recognize that he’s achieved an extraordinary level. I got excused from secondary piano at conservatory by auditioning with the Grieg, but my attempt was not remotely close — a vast overstatement, I was awful — to LL’s talents,

    He’s also fun, great with the press, and a good sport. Trashing him does none of us — audiences or performers — any good. The people who hire these folks to give commencement speeches are pretty clever. Do we want to live or die as the classical population? Give LL some credit.