Friday (March 29), the 88th day of the year, is World Piano Day, in honor of the venerable instrument’s 88 keys. To celebrate, world-renowned pianist Lang Lang is releasing his new album, Piano Book, via Universal Music Group’s esteemed classical imprint Deutsche Grammophon.
It’s a varied collection, featuring piano music touchstones like Beethoven‘s “Fur Elise” and Debussy‘s “Claire De Lune,” along with more contemporary fodder including Max Richter‘s “The Departure” (featured in The Leftovers) and Yann Tiersen‘s “Six Pieces for Piano” (from La Valse d’Amelie). Piano Book also includes the universally beloved ditty “Chopsticks,” which Lang Lang recently jammed on with The Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste at New York City’s Steinway Hall.
Anyone whose parents urged them to play piano in elementary school will likely remember the refrain from “Chopsticks,” and that’s the idea: Piano Book‘s song selections mirror Lang Lang’s drive to teach children of all ages and backgrounds how to play piano. “I have long thought about creating an album that inspires every student to play with a new kind of standard in mind,” Lang Lang said in a press release. “When I was a kid, a recording like this didn’t exist.”
Deeply inspired by a 1986 performance by Russian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz of Schumann’s Träumerei in Moscow, the Chinese-born, New York City-based pianist hopes to instill the same kind of fervor for the baby grand in anyone who listens to Piano Book.
“That recital really changed my way of thinking about piano as an instrument,” he adds. “It’s not just playing a simple piece. It’s truly alive in front of you. My intention was to play every piece we chose for Piano Book with the same devotion Horowitz did with Träumerei. I want to bring the same type of connection to people.”
In addition to the Lang Lang Foundation, which Lang Lang announced Friday will donate $5 million to American public schools over the next five years, the musician also recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his Keys of Inspiration program that can be found in public schools throughout the United States and in China. The curriculum includes an international competition, a summer academy and summit, piano masterclasses and a keyboard festival.
A fun fact for kids of all ages: The Steinway piano located in Manhattan’s Union Square park has retained the imprint of Lang Lang, who recorded on that very same player piano, and can now be played on Spirio Steinways around the world. (For those who haven’t seen the self-playing piano in any of the Harry Potter movies or at your regional shopping mall, the Spirio is essentially a piano that plays itself according to live recordings by pianists that have been programmed into it.)
Lang Lang, who grew up in the town of Shenyang in rural China, was only 17 years old when he was tapped to substitute for André Watts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Since then, he has worked with the Philadelphia Orchestra, jazz maverick Herbie Hancock and even Metallica: The pianist and the metal titans performed …And Justice for All thrasher “One” at the Grammys in 2014 and in Beijing in 2017. That same year, Lang Lang — who has said he received a lot of recognition stateside for the cross-genre collaboration — re-signed a long-term record deal with UMG.
Piano Book comes on the heels of a major restructuring at Universal Classics and Jazz. Earlier this month, Verve Label Group president and CEO Danny Bennett departed the company, which is in the process of reorganizing in response to growing worldwide demand for both genres. He is replaced with Universal Classics and Jazz CEO Dickon Stainer, who will take on direct responsibility for Verve Label Group — which is the U.S. home of Decca and ECM — and split his time between New York City and London.
Speaking to Stainer’s forward-thinking approach to identifying and marketing artists, UMG CEO Lucian Grainge noted that “he has placed our classics and jazz artists and composers at the center of the streaming revolution.” Proof of concept can be found in Piano Book, which is the first core classical campaign to feature vertical videos on Spotify. Launched in 2017 with Selena Gomez‘s “Bad Liar,” vertical videos optimize viewing experiences for audiences tethered to their mobile devices and have typically featured more pop- and hip-hop-focused chart-toppers like Ariana Grande, Halsey and Travis Scott.
Piano Book will undoubtedly continue the Verve Label Group’s hot streak, which began last July with John Coltrane‘s first top 40 album on the Billboard 200, the newly discovered set Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!/Verve Label Group), and continued through November with Andrea Bocelli‘s Sí, the Italian singer-songwriter’s first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and his 26th charting album.