Classical music

Will Chinese star pianist Lang Lang have to call it quits because of arm injury?

Flamboyant musician facing slower than expected recovery from tendinitis in left arm

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 November, 2017, 12:37pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 November, 2017, 11:22pm

The future of top Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s career could be in question as he struggles with “slower than expected” recovery from the left arm tendinitis that caused him to cancel a Hong Kong performance this month.

The 35-year-old musician, one of the world’s most sought after performers, was originally expected to play with the visiting Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre this month.

“Lang Lang very much regrets that he is forced to withdraw from his upcoming concerts … to allow additional time to recover fully from a tendinitis of his left arm,” said a press statement by the Berlin Phil, arguably the world’s best orchestra.

The statement, dated October 12, was issued less than a month before the flamboyant pianist was set to play Bela Bartok’s second piano concerto, which he recorded four years ago with the Berlin group under chief conductor Simon Rattle.

Watch: Lang Lang teaching piano, but only with his right hand

The November 10 concert was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty with Lang, a Hong Kong resident since 2006 through the Quality Migrant Scheme, as the soloist. South Korean pianist Seong-jin Cho will perform in his stead.

“Many pianists suffer from tendinitis, which ended the careers for some, and I’m worried that could be the case with Lang Lang,” said Chow Fan-fu, a veteran music critic and author.

“If his career was cut short, those who got him to perform hundreds of concerts a year should be held responsible,” he added.

The condition involves inflammation of a tendon in the affected limb and can lead to pain, stiffness and sometimes swelling.

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A reliable source close to Lang told the Post that the pianist’s recovery was slower than expected, and his recording schedule had been postponed but not cancelled.

“It was March when the news about his injury came out [...] with long-term well-being in mind, he made the painful decision of cancelling his Berlin Phil concert tour starting in Hong Kong,” the source said.

“He’s expected to record two CDs, including Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and these projects are still on, though without a date or location of recording.”

The source described Lang as “active” in public appearances and charities, such as the upcoming November 11 carnival as a part of China’s so-called Singles Day, though he avoided use of his left arm in performances.

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Dr Ho Pak-cheong, an honorary professor at the Department of Orthopaedics and Traumatology at Chinese University, said it was not unexpected that one of the world’s busiest performers was suffering from this ailment, though his diagnosis was less pessimistic.

“Given the intensity and power in Lang Lang’s playing we all know of, his injury is anything but a surprise,” Ho, himself a renowned harmonica player, told the Post.

The way joints and tissues work in body movement, the doctor said, one would encounter problems “when they are put to repeat the same movement a hundred thousand times in a, say, 20-minute piano concerto”.

“But human body has a self-recovery mechanism, so 95 per cent of the injury could heal on its own if no further harm was inflicted,” he said.

In general, Ho said, a normal injury would take a year to heal, and three years or longer for the more serious cases. Steroid shots and surgery are alternatives.

Watch: Lang Lang talks about the road to recovery

Celebrated local pianist Nancy Loo suffered from tendinitis during her first year at The Juilliard School in New York.

“Both my wrists were stiff and painful, and I relied on steroid shots to relieve the pain,” she recalled, adding that she eventually had surgery on both arms.

Vivian Yim Wan, another Juilliard piano graduate, spent 10 years getting her muscles back in form.

“My right hand suffered from tendinitis, and in a course of 10 years I developed new muscle and a new style of playing,” she said.

Little information is available about Lang’s current condition, but Ho said the pianist should be cautious with his choice of repertoire.

“He should not rush to resume and should start with lighter works, like Mozart,” the doctor said. “The technical wizard may be gone, but I am sure there is another side of Lang Lang’s artistry.”