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WQXR Features

A Powerhouse Pianist Shakes Up the State Dinner

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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."