This Lang Lang phenomenon, this concept of classical music meets mega rock stardom, has never really been farfetched.
Take Franz Liszt, for one. When the Hungarian composer played piano, he played piano, improvising provocatively, peeling off his gloves and tossing them to the crowd. He inspired so much fanfare, so many vapors, that the writer Heinrich Heine coined the frenzy "Lisztomania." ||| A century later, a toddler named Lang Lang from the small Chinese town of Shenyang sat transfixed by an episode of Tom and Jerry in which Tom plays the Cat Concerto. It was really Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt, and Lang Lang was so into the white-tie glamor of it all, he decided to play piano. ||| Now 31, Lang Lang is one of the world's most famous concert pianists, with a rock star following of his own. He plays at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall on Monday and Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Wednesday, riding a recent injection to his already major fame. ||| In January, he performed on the Grammy Awards with Metallica, flames launching from behind his piano while he filled out the band's classic song, One. It was his second Grammy appearance, his first foray into heavy metal.
"It was kind of a special moment," he said, calling from his hotel on a snowy tour stop in Virginia. "The last time, I played jazz, Rhapsody in Blue with Herbie Hancock. This time was more, kind of, adventurous, but I must say I enjoyed it very much."
If classical music is having a pop culture moment, with opera stars Renee Fleming at the Super Bowl and Anna Netrebko at the Olympics, Lang Lang is right there with them. It has been a long journey for such a young man.
He started playing at 3, and by 5 had won his first contest. By 13, he executed the complete 24 Chopin Etudes at the Beijing Concert Hall. He has played with the most prestigious orchestras around the world, including a debut with the Florida Orchestra when he was 17. He has played for President Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth, on stage at the Beijing Olympics.
And as his star rose, he parlayed his classical credibility into the most millennial of pursuits.
Becoming a brand.
He has promoted digital cameras for Sony, lent Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7 to the soundtrack of video game Gran Turismo 5. Bugatti designed a sports car for him with a finish like the keys of a piano. He has his own Adidas Gazelle sneakers, his name implanted next to shining gold stripes.
He mostly sticks to classical programs in concert, but he experiments offstage mashing those works with everything from hip-hop beats to crashing rock drums. He has performed with pop stars like Katharine McPhee and John Legend.
"I actually like to listen to symphony," he said. "I like to listen to opera and jazz music. I also like hip-hop. Jay-Z, very much, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys."
That musical meld mirrors cherished parts of his childhood, he said. Weekdays were for intense training with his often demanding, perfectionist father. But Saturday, Lang Lang and his neighborhood friends would get together and play Chinese folk music, improvising on everything from flutes to cellos.
"That's how music should be," he said. "Sometimes you need to absolutely play the great works, but sometimes as a musician you need to have kind of a free style, to do something together with other friends."
His flexibility shows in the crowds at his concerts. He sees tiny would-be Lang Langs, college students in their 20s, classical music purists in their golden years. Since the Grammys, the crowd has skewed ever younger and hipper.
The kind of celebrity Lang Lang has found can be a powerful bridge between worlds, said Haig Mardirosian, dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Tampa. Even then, it takes more than one Metallica mashup to truly connect a new crowd.
But it's possible, Mardirosian said. Think George Gershwin, he said, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Zappa, artists who have blended distinct styles into something forward-thinking.
"We have a whole generation of musicians who fall everywhere on the spectrum, who are perfectly willing to be adventurous and look at the possibility for collaborations," he said. "Somewhere out of that, it won't be just a question of the juxtaposition of the mash-up. Somewhere in there, we'll discover something new."
For Lang Lang, the experimentation sometimes comes at a critical cost.
His latest tour features a romantic program of Mozart and Chopin, and while few question his technical skills, some critics have wondered if Lang Lang is playing Mozart with more flair and less subtlety than the compositions require.
Lang Lang says he's always seeking affecting moments in pieces.
"For me, Mozart is really such a unique, dramatic composer in the most precise way, and also really emotional in a way," he said. "So beautiful, so touching. Even though he's from the classic period, Mozart is Mozart. He's very unexpected … so you never know what he's going to do next minute. The operatic moment I need to show in the music is the most important thing for me. I just want to bring that part out in the concert."
The style resonates with young people in particular. In what's often called the "Lang Lang effect," Lang Lang has been credited with getting countless Chinese children interested in piano again. In 2008, he started the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, going to schools to play and share ideas about music.
And Steinway named a piano after him, designed for early music education. Some of the instruments have a white board attached, a place for kids to write and draw while they play, a place where their imaginations can explode.
Those kinds of feelings, he said, are the point.
"I get moved by the beautiful melody, the beautiful harmony," he said. "It makes me feel very different. … It just gives me such a magical power. Music is really beyond our reach. It's hard to describe."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow her on Twitter at @stephhayes.