Published: 15:46, September 21, 2022 | Updated: 18:03, September 21, 2022
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Where the magic began
By Chen Nan

With his latest recording, virtuoso pianist Lang Lang takes listeners on a journey back to his earliest musical inspiration, the iconic songs of Disney, Chen Nan reports.

Pianist Lang Lang performs in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, a centerpiece of the Disneyland Park in California, on April 2. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Lang Lang has often said that he was inspired to learn to play the piano after watching an episode of Tom and Jerry, the American animated cartoon series, which features Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No 2.

"I am a big fan of cartoons. When I was a child, I loved many cartoon characters, such as Monkey King, Mickey Mouse and Snow White. Those cartoons featured many great musical works, mostly classical and traditional, which opened the door to a very big and fascinating world to me," recalls the pianist.

It’s an album showcasing the beauty and color of classical music through the interpretation of popular musical works from Disney movies.

Lang Lang, pianist

He can still remember that, as a child, he put stickers of cartoon characters on pictures of composers to entertain himself.

"For example, I put a Monkey King sticker on a picture of Mozart, a Transformers sticker on Beethoven and Mickey Mouse on Carl Czerny," he adds. "It gave me so much fun when I practiced."

On Friday, the celebrated pianist, 40, released his new album, titled The Disney Book, with a hope, he says, that "people of all ages will enjoy classical music and experience the joy that we all felt the first time we saw a Disney film".

On Sept 14, Lang gave a preview of the new album at Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles. Besides sharing the inspiration behind the recording, the pianist also played a few songs from it, such as Reflection from Mulan, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf from Three Little Pigs and Rainbow Connection from The Muppet Movie.

As a collaborative project, the pianist worked alongside several musicians from across the globe on the record, which features new versions of 30 iconic Disney movie melodies. The preparation for the new album started over three years ago, in celebration of 100 years of the Walt Disney Company.

Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli provided vocals for You'll Be in My Heart from Tarzan, Colombian singer-songwriter Sebastian Yatra performed the Oscar-nominated song Dos Oruguitas from Encanto and Chinese erhu player Guo Gan performed the piece Reflection from Mulan with the pianist.

The celebrated pianist has released his album, The Disney Book, inviting fans of all ages to enjoy his interpretations of classical music from the movies. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Lang's wife, pianist Gina Alice Redlinger, sang the song, When You Wish Upon a Star from Pinocchio.

Leading music arrangers also joined in the project, such as Stephen Hough, Natalie Tenenbaum and Randy Kerber.

"I started working on this project in Shanghai at the end of 2019 and then I launched my global tour with my Goldberg Variations album. I recorded the Disney album in different cities on my global tour, such as New York, London and Paris," says Lang. "It's a project that gathers international artists, which was particularly difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

The pianist had a clear vision for the album. While maintaining the essence of the melodies, the imaginative and sophisticated arrangements, whether for solo piano or for piano and a full orchestra (the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played with Lang on the album under the baton of conductor Robert Ziegler), should conjure the soundscapes of great composers like Achille-Claude Debussy and Frederic Chopin, as well as the virtuosity of Liszt and Vladimir Horowitz.

"It's not an album you listen to as background music, like in the elevator. It's an album showcasing the beauty and color of classical music through the interpretation of popular musical works from Disney movies," the pianist says.

"I was delighted to be asked to arrange some Disney songs for him (Lang Lang). I loved the challenge of transforming these popular songs, beloved by generations of children and adults, into solo piano pieces, rooted in the classical tradition of the great transcribers of the past," says Hough, pianist and composer, and also a member of the faculty at The Juilliard School. He was responsible for the new arrangement of Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins, alongside new versions of The Bare Necessities from The Jungle Book and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Frozen.

When Lang was 13 years old, he visited Tokyo Disneyland after he won the first prize at the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians Competition held in Tokyo in 1995.

"The first song I heard was from It's a Small World. It's a melody that stayed with me for a long time afterward," recalls Lang, who used the song as the opening piece for the new album. When he recorded the song, the pianist learned about its history.

As part of a huge hit attraction-a boat cruise-the song It's a Small World was created for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, which was personally overseen by Walt Disney in support of the United Nations Children's Fund. Disney asked the Academy Award-winning brothers, Richard and Robert Sherman, to create a single song for the attraction that could be sung by Audio-Animatronics figures in multiple languages.

"The message of the song is still important today, which is about people from different cultures and backgrounds living on the same planet. Just like music itself, it's universal," the pianist says.

Lang's connection with Disney has continued into adulthood and, in 2016, he played the song, Let It Go, from Frozen, at the opening of Shanghai Disney Resort.

Now, he has a new reason to watch Disney animations: his son, who was born last year.

"He particularly loves listening to songs from those films and one of his favorites is Three Little Pigs," says Lang. "This is the first album that I released after becoming a father and it's a gift for my son, as well as for people of different generations everywhere."

The pianist also reveals that he is working on his next album, which will feature Piano Concerto No 2 in G Minor, Op 22 by French composer Camille Saint-Saens.

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