A sleek Steinway grand piano sits on an enormous stone driveway in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland Park in California. In the background, flags hung on top of blue turrets stir in the breeze. At a glance, this could be a summer concert at an historic stately home – were it not for the pastel-pink lighting and medieval-style crests. The inscription below the pianist’s stool reads ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, the song featured in 1940 animation Pinocchio and the signature sound of California’s Disneyland Park. The pianist draws out the iconic ‘Feed the Birds’ melody from Mary Poppins, embellishing and disguising the 1964 Sherman Brothers’ tune through a series of improvisatory passages. As the piece ends, the dawn chorus takes over – a perfect fairytale conclusion to the unveiling of Lang Lang’s latest project, an extensive collection of imaginative arrangements of much-loved songs recorded for The Disney Book released on 16 September 2022.
“When I was a kid I loved watching Mickey Mouse”
“When I was a kid I loved watching Mickey Mouse,” remembers Lang Lang, “And, later, I liked The Lion King – it was so touching, especially when Mufasa dies.” At 13, the pianist visited Tokyo Disneyland and first heard ‘It’s A Small World’, the tune composed in 1962 to accompany the eponymous attraction at Disney World and now widely associated with the theme parks. It’s a melody that stayed with the musician for a long time afterwards – and now features on the new album.
Lang Lang’s connection with Disney continued into adulthood and in 2016 he played Frozen‘s ‘Let It Go’ at the opening of Shanghai Disney Resort. The pianist now has another reason to revisit favourite films: his young son is a fan. “I watch (2021 film) Encanto with him – he loves ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’,” says Lang Lang. That includes the solo piano version that Lang Lang plays at home, a dazzling virtuosic piece that appears alongside a wide range of transcriptions of Disney songs new and old. The album has been a highly collaborative project, bringing together artists from across the world to create the very best selection of arrangements. Among the starry composers is pianist Stephen Hough, who is responsible for the new arrangement of ‘Feed the Birds’, alongside sparkling versions of ‘The Bare Necessities’ (from The Jungle Book, 1967) and ‘Do You Want to Build A Snowman?’ (from Frozen, 2013).
“I wanted something really artistic and pianistic”
Fleet-fingered glissandos, scurrying basslines and intricately carved melodies fill the solo piano versions of ‘Whistle While You Work’ (Snow White, 1937) and the theme to 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. This style of transcription – a ‘reimagining’ of a work – has its roots in the 19th century, when composers such as Liszt created versions of famous operas for the piano, designed to explore the extremities of a pianist’s technique. An equivalent today might be a sampling of an old pop tune in a faster, brighter version – or the TikTok trend of layering new interpretations, brilliantly demonstrated through Nathan Evans’ ‘Wellerman’ video that went viral in 2021. It is this virtuosic approach that appealed to Lang Lang when embarking on his new album The Disney Book. “I wanted something really artistic and pianistic,” he says. Alongside Hough’s fizzing arrangements is a sophisticated Mary Poppins medley by Natalie Tennenbaum and a plaintive version of ‘My Own Home’ (The Jungle Book) by Thomas Lauderdale.
Features Andrea Bocelli, Jon Batiste, Miloš and Gina Alice
In addition to the sparkling solo piano music are colourful orchestral works and a host of celebrity guest artists, such as Lang Lang’s wife Gina Alice, who sings ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ (“It’s so beautiful, I really felt like a wish is being granted when I hear it,” says Lang Lang). There are also appearances from singer Andrea Bocelli (‘You’ll Be In My Heart’ from Tarzan, 1999), pianist Jon Batiste (‘It’s All Right’ from Soul, 2020) and guitarist Miloš, who performs ‘Remember Me’ the lullaby from 2017’s Coco. Lang Lang’s new album The Disney Book – which has been released to mark The Walt Disney Company’s centenary – was recorded over multiple sessions in New York, Shanghai, Paris and London, where the pianist joined the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Robert Ziegler. “The whole thing was a learning experience for everyone, including me,” reflects Lang Lang. “The orchestra was wonderful – the colours are so strong. We knew that these songs are so important to Disney fans and we wanted to do them justice.”
One of those fans is Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who co-wrote the Encanto soundtrack. “I met Lin-Manuel when I was in New York and I showed him my version of ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’” reveals Lang Lang, “he loved it! I am so happy with the Latino-style songs we have included in The Disney Book,” he adds, “they bring a freshness to the recording.”
“This is my heartfelt gift to all generations everywhere”
Translating songs into instrumental versions is not an easy task and Lang Lang was committed to getting the style right. “I have tried to find the characterisation within the music,” he says, “In the Beauty and the Beast piece, for example, the piano has to be the talking candle (Lumière), the clock (Cogsworth) – everything! We haven’t tried to replicate the original soundtrack.”
Lang Lang hopes that the album will bring new audiences to the piano – and may even go on to inspire some listeners to explore classical music. It was, after all, a cartoon that sealed the Chinese superstar’s fate: “I fell in love with music through watching Tom and Jerry,” he says, referring to the 1947 short The Cat Concerto, which features Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody No 2’.
“Music helps you to experience other worlds,” says Lang Lang, “there is such wonderful variety in Disney songs there is something to inspire everyone. This is my heartfelt gift to all generations everywhere.”
Lang Lang’s new album The Disney Book will be released on 16 September 2022 and can be pre-ordered here.