A Powerhouse Pianist Shakes Up the State Dinner

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It's perhaps the first and only time a classical pianist has managed to upstage a state dinner.

Yet, as diplomats and luminaries from around the world gathered at the White House last week to honor Chinese president Hu Jintao, they were treated to a performance by Lang Lang -- and a front row seat to perhaps the White House's first classical music controversy.

Among other selections, the celebrated Chinese pianist performed "My Motherland," a patriotic tune from the 1956 Chinese film Battle on Shangganling Mountain. The film depicts battles in the Korean War, and is considered by some to be anti-American.

In the days since the dinner, analysts have furiously debated Lang Lang's intentions, and the song's implications, prompting the pianist to release an official statement. Lang Lang explained he selected the song "because it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child. It was selected for no other reason but for the beauty of its melody."

Lang Lang's statement continued: "America and China are my two homes. I am most grateful to the United States for providing me with such wonderful opportunities, both in my musical studies and for furthering my career. I couldn’t be who I am today without those two countries.”

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor has also tried to quell further speculation by stating to the press, “any suggestion that this was an insult to the United States is just flat wrong... Lang Lang played the song without lyrics or reference to any political themes during the entertainment portion of the State Dinner. He simply stated the song’s title and noted it was well known in China.”

Jim Cheng, curator of the East Asian film collection at Columbia University, helped to put the film, and its music, in context. "This is a very famous propaganda movie that tries to raise patriotic feelings among the Chinese," Cheng told WQXR. "The song that Lang Lang played has become more popular than the movie. But the movie itself is not particularly anti-American. It doesn't depict Americans badly, so much as it shows hard working Chinese forces with high spirits."

"Anyone who grew up in the 1950s, 60s, or 70s should know the song," Cheng continued. "Lang Lang probably selected that song because it's beautiful. It's especially touching, for even overseas Chinese."


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Comments [9]

Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

LANG LANG is too intelligent and too talented to have intentionally chosen music that would offended anyone. MUSIC without words can bring pleasure from its beauty of melody or instrumental color. Remember our own national anthem with words of Francis Scott Key extolled the fact that our flag still stood defiant despite the British cannon fire against it is actually a beer hall melody famous in those days with its original bawdy text. We stand and salute, singing it proudly. Assume that Lang Lang, as many Chinese, love the melody and hear it with joy, not with politically connived defiance or "in your face" condemnation.

Jan. 28 2011 05:56 PM

The song is generally accepted as being anti-American - whether correctly or not is irrelevant. Obviously Lang Lang knew this. The statement he was clearly making was that IN THIS COUNTRY YOU ARE ALLOWED TO MAKE A PUBLIC STATEMENT AGAINST YOUR GOVERNMENT!!!
There is no doubt that this was intended to be a very political statement, and a very pro-American one at that.

Jan. 28 2011 02:53 PM

mispelled "subtle". Sorry

Jan. 28 2011 12:33 PM
CJ from manhattan

To Lawrence Haber from Charleston:
I grew up in China around the same time Lang Lang did, we came to the United States around the same time and, I'm a pianist too. I don't know the guy. But I know for many people my generation this is just a song we heard over and over when we were little. I'm sure Lang Lang knew about the movie, but I hardly think he meant to insult anybody. Trust me, if he did he wouldn't do it in the White House, in front of Obama. You obviously know nothing of Chinese culture and Chinese people. We value doing things in a tactful and sutble way.
It's JUST music, people. Relax.

Jan. 28 2011 12:31 PM
Carolyn from Manhattan

I can't stand it! These "hidden meanings" go too far. Bravo Lang Lang. How great to program what you did, and to play it as expressively as you did. Perhaps if some of the more neurotic people around just sat back and enjoyed beauty in life, instead of searching for negative "hidden meanings" we all would have a less froughtful life! Play on, Lang Lang.

Jan. 28 2011 10:22 AM
Don Hanley from NJ

The search for slights flourishes in an overheated political atmosphere. Going back to a forgotten 50's propaganda movie to disparage a 2011 performance is the kind of silliness that animates conspiracy theorists. To the "analysts (who) have furiously debated Lang Lang's intentions", one might say "give it a rest, people".

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a piece of music is just a piece of music.

Jan. 28 2011 08:29 AM
Lawrence Haber from Charleston SC

Lang Lang, the man, is an utter disgrace. He gladly takes money from this country and returns the favor with an insult. The Chinese president made a point about treating his country with respect. I suppose this is what respect means. Both Lang and Hu knew the meaning of this music much as a Russian would understand the meaning of Alexander Nevsky. No accident this.

I wish there was a Casals and a Busch around for our age rather than this feeble creation of the DG PR system.

Jan. 28 2011 08:25 AM
LES from Washington DC

The article fails to state who "planted" the idea that the song is anti-American and that, by playing it, Lang Lang intended to make a veiled political statement. Professor Cheng, thankfully, puts the song into its proper context -- a beautiful melody that might have resonated with many of the Chinese guests. You were expecting Yankee Doodle Dandy?

Jan. 26 2011 09:07 AM
Michael Meltzer

It's hard to take seriously. Everyone who plays at the White House wants to be invited back.

Jan. 25 2011 08:21 PM

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