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Keys to Friendship
China Today
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Keys to Friendship

On the night of May 6, 2024, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron held a welcome banquet for Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan at the Elysee Palace in Paris. At the banquet, Chinese virtuoso pianist Lang Lang played the piano version of the popular Chinese folk song Jasmine Flower, after which together with the Elysee Palace band, he presented compositions by French piano guru Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns.

“The pieces were carefully chosen. Jasmine Flower is a household name in China, and Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals is lively and merry, resonating with the theme of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France,” Lang Lang told China Today. In a Weibo post after the performance he wrote: “This is an unforgettable night. This is a beautiful night. Wish China-France friendship (would) last forever.” His excitement was palpable.  

It was not Lang’s first visit to the Elysee Palace. As an envoy of China-France cultural friendship, Lang has been seen there frequently in recent years as he has dedicated himself to consolidating the friendship between the Chinese and French through music.

What is behind Lang Lang’s abiding fondness for France? What did he talk about with the two presidents at the Elysee Palace? What is his plan for this year as envoy of China-France cultural friendship? With the widespread application of artificial intelligence (AI), will he apply the technology in music? China Today talked with Lang Lang for answers to these questions in an exclusive interview.    

Bonding with France  

In the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France, Lang Lang attended a welcome ceremony for Chinese passengers held at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on December 5, 2023. He was awarded the title “envoy of China-France cultural friendship” at the ceremony.  

Later, Lang was invited to the Elysee Palace where he was received by President Macron and the French first lady. Macron showed Lang around and discussed Chinese music with him. Lang performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations for the couple. His deft handling of the emotions and timbre gave a unique life to each piece, Macron said in praise of Lang’s performance. It is not something you can acquire from practice, it is a gift you are born with, the president enthused.  

Lang Lang shared an insight with China Today into the significance of the recent welcome banquet for President Xi and his wife. “President Macron was very happy and very excited,” Lang indicated. “He said it was a meaningful moment for both China and France, and hoped that the China-France friendship would grow even better.”  

Lang also got a chance to talk with President Xi. “President Xi praised me for my efforts to promote Chinese culture in the international community and encouraged me to continue them,” he said.  

France is no stranger to Lang’s music. He has played there on many occasions. In 2013, he was the only Asian musician invited to play in Paris for the Bastille Day celebrations, making him the first pianist to perform in front of the Eiffel Tower. In the same year, he was awarded the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government.  

In 2015, Lang was once again invited to the Bastille Day celebrations. This time he played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the National Orchestra of France. “As a Chinese pianist, I hope the global audience can hear our Chinese people’s expression and passion for the arts from my music,” Lang said.  

In 2019, he was conferred a special award at the Victoire de la Musique Classique ceremony in Paris in recognition of his work for two decades. He was the first Chinese to win the accolade.  

In March 2024, Lang released his new album Lang Lang-Saint-Saëns, which plays French composer Saint-Saëns’s masterpieces such as the Carnival of the Animals and Piano Concerto No.2. “The album also collects works of five French female composers, who are rarely known among Chinese, but incredibly fascinating. In playing the pieces, I felt like my soul was out of my body. I was on cloud nine,” Lang told China Today.  

The Piano and AI  

In today’s age of hi-tech, AI is an increasingly used tool to process and even generate texts, photos and videos. Some are also using the technology to compose music. Recently, Lang was featured in a short musical video promoting the use of AI in musical creation. 

“Put in some notes and melodies. An AI tool will automatically generate a complete score. It is a powerful function. The video was shot to showcase the power of AI in artistic creation,” said Wang Yucheng, director of the video co-produced with Aliyun, Alibaba’s cloud service arm.  

“That was the first time I combined AI with piano playing. I’m glad to try that,” Lang Lang said. “Aliyun’s powerful algorithm enables us to easily explore new musical genre and creation. It makes musical creation more intelligent and efficient.” 

The audience can feel the magic and power of Aliyun’s AI tool in the video. “The combination of a world-renowned virtuoso pianist and frontier technology gives people infinite space for imagination,” Wang said. “In the video, AI is like a friend in real life. It talks and responds to Lang Lang and creates music together with him.”  

“I think AI is an important auxiliary tool for musical creation. I don’t compose, but I have a lot of ideas. AI can help me turn my ideas into part of my music,” Lang said.  

Wang said the short video was shot at the Normal School of Music of Paris (École Normale de Musique de Paris, ENMP). It is a Chinese-French co-production, made to tell the French about China and Chinese art and record the friendship between the two countries on the special occasion of 60 years of their diplomatic ties. 

When the school knew that Lang was coming, it gave the production team the most fabulous room for shooting. The president of the ENMP accompanied the camera crew and many students turned up to ask for autographs and selfies with Lang. When the shooting ended, a crowd of people came to see Lang off even though it was a holiday.   

A Bridge of Friendship 

In a French TV program in 2019, former French President François Hollande revealed that he was a fan of Lang Lang, and had read Lang’s autobiography Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story. Hollande said it was marvelous how Lang’s parents raised him to be a world-renowned pianist.  

In France, Lang Lang is very popular. The pianist said he was honored to be favored by the French and shared his thoughts on the probable reasons: “First, I think French people like Asian culture, particularly Chinese culture, very much. They are kind to and even admire Chinese artists. Second, French people love emotionally subtle and gentle expressions of art. It’s a kind of hazy feeling. And Chinese artists also like this kind of feeling. Therefore, I pay special attention to this in my music. Apart from melodies and rhythms, I try to deliver the emotions and feelings of the works.”  

Although the piano is a Western musical instrument, Lang thinks it can fully and perfectly render the artistic meaning and structure of Chinese music and express the Chinese character of perseverance, tenacity and fortitude.  

“Take the piano concerto The Yellow River, for example,” he said. “If it were not the piano, you would find no other musical instrument to generate that kind of power. So, I think the piano rendering also represents the Chinese aspiration and national character of pursuing peace and safeguarding peace.” 

This year, he will stage performances with leading European orchestras, including the Orchestre de Paris, National Orchestra of France and German orchestra Staatskapelle Dresden. In late May, Lang will kick off his France tour, with concerts scheduled in places like Lyons, Bordeaux, Cannes and Paris. “I love to perform in Europe, a continent of cultural profundity. It has many similarities with China as both are ancient civilizations and the people love classical music,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Lang has been promoting Chinese music while touring Europe. “I play one piece of Chinese music at each concert. This has been a tradition of mine, not just for this year. I hope China-Europe relations could get better and better,” he said. 

In addition, Lang has also been devoted to enhancing cultural exchanges between youngsters in China and Europe. The Lang Lang International Music Foundation has organized Chinese cultural experience tours, bringing children from Europe to China and taking them to places like Beijing and Shandong. “We are working to create a music camp program, connecting Chinese kids with their European counterparts through music,” Lang said.  


China TodayShen Yi

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