Underneath the big hair, behind the rock-star clothes, and despite the distracting paparazzi back home in China, he's still Lang Lang.
As NCM Fathom technicians run miles of cables backstage at Verizon Hall in preparation for Saturday's live simulcast to 500 movie theaters across the country, pianist Lang Lang is bear-hugging Philadelphia Orchestra chief conductor Charles Dutoit and chatting about their favorite Beijing restaurants.
Wide-eyed as ever, Lang Lang, 29, played through parts of the two concertos he'll play in his Thursday-through-Saturday concerts here. The rehearsal was finished in five minutes.
"It's the fastest I've ever had in my life," said Lang Lang, slightly awed by Dutoit's expeditiousness. "But he's played those concertos with Martha Argerich . . . ." (The legendary pianist is the conductor's ex-wife.)
The idols still loom large, even though Lang Lang is now more famous than any of them. Since graduating from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music in 2002, he has become a symbol of a new international China, having worked with three major recording labels (currently Sony Classical) and been featured on international telecasts from the Beijing Olympics. He's now making his simulcast debut.
Titled Lang Lang Live on Franz Liszt's 200th Birthday, the Saturday simulcast, to be repeated Monday, will feature him in Verizon Hall for Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1. But instead of showing the full program with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, the simulcast will feature Lang Lang in a prerecorded solo recital.
That might disappoint those hoping for a Philadelphia Orchestra showcase, but orchestra general manager Steve Millen chooses not to see it that way. "The audience is going to go to movie theaters having been told this is about Franz Liszt and Lang Lang and that's what they will experience," he said.
The event might also be a first step in a relationship with NCM Fathom, a communications network that had discussions with the orchestra in 2008, and that handles the big-screen presentations of the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Also, the simulcast is entirely underwritten by Sony Classical - probably in the vicinity of $500,000.
One of the concerts, long scheduled with Lang Lang, just happened to fall on Liszt's birthday, Oct. 22; orchestra personnel say all are selling very well. Lang Lang hasn't been here since he was last a Philadelphia taxpayer in 2009. "It's very weird. This is the first time I've been in Philadelphia without actually going home," he said. "I never knew any of the hotels because I never stayed in them. But in the morning, waking up to see City Hall . . . that's nice."
Backstage at the Kimmel Center, he peered out the window onto 15th Street and pointed to some windows in the overlooking high-rise where he lived for years with his parents and full-size Steinway. Later, in his Spruce Street apartment, cramped conditions never stopped him from having company over for huge Chinese feasts prepared by his mother, Xiulan Zhou, a former telephone operator and an extremely accomplished cook.
"A nice time," he said. "I'm still happy now."
His father, Lang Guo-Ren, now lives in Beijing and presents his son's concerts while his mother travels with him, making sure his immoderate schedule doesn't get the best of him.
"It feels really grounded. I didn't live with my mom for nearly 10 years," he said, referring to his years studying piano in Beijing and then the start of his Curtis tenure in the late 1990s. "It's great that we have this time together."
She also talks to him as nobody else can. When he's too tired to sign autographs, she tells him to do so anyway. But if he wants to go out on the town after a long day, she doesn't mince words: "You don't want to live anymore or what?"
That's a legitimate question. On Sunday, he played a concert in Japan. On Monday, he was in New York doing promotion for his new Liszt CD. On Tuesday, he was in Washington, D.C., making a public-service announcement for the World Wildlife Fund, one of several charities he has worked for since his student years.
"I personally adopted a panda five years ago," he said. "It was put in a panda center. Then a few years ago, unfortunately, the panda died. I'd like to do more for those special animals."
The strain didn't show Wednesday during rehearsals and a full of day of interviews. In a way, life is the same as before, only spread over a much larger portion of the globe. He now lives in New York City, across the street from his Curtis teacher, Gary Graffman. He still takes lessons from Christoph Eschenbach, who was on hand during his 1999 breakthrough concert in Chicago (after which he stayed up half the night playing works such as Bach's Goldberg Variations for the conductor).
Only now is he getting back to Bach: In contrast to his flashy image, Bach's Partita No. 1 heads this season's recital repertoire. The Goldberg Variations have to wait until 2014's Salzburg Festival.
His current preoccupation with Liszt may well feed into his image of being unduly flamboyant - years ago he was nicknamed Bang Bang - though there's nothing new about that.
"I know what I'm trying to achieve in art, so there are no worries," he says. "If I was only flamboyant, I would be worried!"
His Friday Philadelphia concert has him playing Beethoven's more restrained Piano Concerto No. 2, which will be repeated Tuesday at Carnegie Hall.
Though Lang Lang has performed with champion ice skaters and shared the stage with dancing girls, he has a sense of when to say no. He'll play on the soundtrack of the coming film My Week With Marilyn (as in Monroe) mainly because he knows and respects the composer, Alexandre Desplat. "But," he notes, "if you get a call from Hollywood saying we'd like you to do this but we don't know the composer, the answer should be no."
When he and Graffman get together for an evening they are, if anything, closer now, and can talk, eat, and play until 1:30 a.m.
A cozy picture. But the minute Lang Lang emerges from his dressing room to choose pianos on the Verizon Hall stage, his posture straightens and there's a hint of rock-star strut to his walk. He's his public self now. But he knows it.