For Lang Lang, Disney songs are good for classical music


Disney’s corporate dominance can be pretty disenchanting — but for many, classic tunes like “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Beauty and the Beast” still hold magic within them. In Shenyang, China, in the 1980s, Lang Lang was one of the countless who fell under Uncle Walt’s spell.

Growing up, Lang remembers watching “Snow White” and “Pinocchio” and plunking out the melodies at the piano at family concerts. “Not only do we have the classical music repertoire, but we also [have] a lot of animation repertoire,” he says.

The pianist has spent the last four years commissioning new arrangements of the Disney songbook, turning the company’s vast library of show tunes — from the 1930s operetta of “Snow White” to the modern salsa of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” — for his new album. “The Disney Book” also features special guests like Miloš, Guo Gan and Jon Batiste.

On Thursday he’ll perform the majority of the album — with different guests — at the Hollywood Bowl.

Sitting at a piano on a Zoom call, Lang breaks into bars of old memories — “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” — and recalls the jazz he heard in old Mickey Mouse shorts and the emotional whammy of seeing “The Lion King” when he was a teenager. Even though the definition of a “Disney song” is a wide umbrella, he believes there’s a through-line.

A man at the piano.

The pianist Lang Lang.

(Simon Webb)

“The secret weapon for Disney music, in the past, was Walt Disney himself,” says Lang, who got a chance to walk through Disney’s old office and see photos of him discussing “Fantasia” with conductor Leopold Stokowski. “Walt Disney himself gave very clear ideas on what kind of style Disney music should have, which is kind of a warm melody, with themes people can remember — people will sing along very well — and which has a great kind of harmonic, classic bass.”

A lot changed after the founder’s death in 1966, of course, and now “Disney song” can mean anything from Elton John to Lin-Manuel Miranda to Kristen Anderson-Lopez. “But you feel there’s a connection,” Lang says, “you feel this emotion, you feel this warmth, you feel these melodic waves into the music. And I think that was Walt Disney’s theory.”

But what is one of our premier classical virtuosos doing with these children’s singalongs? Has Disney’s relentless cultural occupation now consumed the concert hall — and not just the downtown hall named after Walt — too?

One reason Lang turned to the Disney repertoire: He recently became a father. His wife, Gina Alice, sings “When You Wish Upon a Star” on the new album as a tribute to their 1-year-old son and, he says, “to newborn babies around the globe.”

Whenever his foundation visits elementary schools, kids always ask him to play Disney songs — “Frozen”! “Aladdin”! “Coco”! “They always request,” he says. “So this is another reason why we’re doing it. I think it’s something that’s good for us — for the classical music world, but also good for the kids. When they learn something purely instrumental, they want to hear something which connects to their life. We’d like to make sure that the kids will not be afraid of classical music.”

Initially, Lang wanted to do a broader animation album beyond Disney songs. After all, it was a “Tom and Jerry” short that introduced him to classical music and started him on his path, and he wanted to honor the long tradition of exposing young ears to the canon through various cartoons. But he realized he needed a more focused theme, and Disney offered quite a deep well.

He did still smuggle a tribute to Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” from that famous short, “The Cat Concerto,” into the quicksilver pianism of the album’s “Mary Poppins Fantasy.”

Lang and his arrangers — including Stephen Hough, Natalie Tenenbaum and Randy Kerber — snuck the virtuosity and style of several classical greats into these new renditions. “The Rainbow Connection” sounds a little like Schumann. “Baby Mine” from “Dumbo” is Debussy-esque — “French impressionist ideas of putting kids to sleep,” he says. And “Let It Go” feels like a Liszt piano concerto, with “a lot of octaves and a lot of technical turns.”

After all, Lang wants savvy adults and classical fans to enjoy the album as well: “The interpretation, it will be very different. I hope you will not feel this is like spa therapy.”

‘Lang Lang Plays Disney’

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15


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