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About this Piece

The following is excerpted from the liner notes for Lang Lang: The Disney Book, which are reprinted with permission. This new album and has served as inspiration for tonight’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

“As a young child, animation sparked my imagination and transported me to other worlds. The music was a big part of this experience—and led to my life-long love of classical music. There is such a variety of styles in Disney songs; there is truly something to inspire everyone. I hope that people of all ages will enjoy this and experience the joy that we all felt the first time we saw a Disney film.” —Lang Lang

Disney films are markers in many people’s lives. They are a timeline of family movie nights, first dates, and comforting afternoons. Animation, once associated with the very young, now has a universal appeal. Through Walt Disney, and later collaborations with Pixar, the complexity of the visual images has continued to be matched with contemporary storylines—and engaging, ever-lasting soundtracks. The composers behind these evergreen songs transport listeners to wild jungles, creepy castles, and snowy fjords, long after the screen has gone black.

Animation soundtracks have had a big impact on Lang Lang. It was through watching Tom and Jerry’s The Cat Concerto, in which Liszt’s capering Hungarian Rhapsody accompanies the duo’s escapades, that the pianist got his first taste of classical music. The rest is history: Lang Lang has performed across the world and recorded many of the major canonical works, most recently Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Now, Lang Lang turns his attention to music with which he has a very different—and very personal—connection. “When I was 13, I visited Disneyland in Tokyo; it was the first time I had heard ‘It’s a Small World,’ and the melody stayed with me all day and long afterwards.” The piece is among the opening tracks on Lang Lang: The Disney Book, with a host of celebrity collaborators. “It’s a Small World” begins with that earworm melody that Lang Lang so loved as a teenager, but within a few bars it becomes clear that this isn’t just another piano transcription. Interior melodies grow in increasingly inventive ways, developing into a kaleidoscopic sound far removed from the piece first presented by the Sherman Brothers.

The style follows the longstanding tradition of piano transcriptions, as when Liszt and others would transfer versions of orchestral and operatic works to the piano. Unlike most instruments, the piano is capable of polyphony—multiple lines of music played simultaneously—and, for a virtuoso, the possibilities are endless. In the 19th century, piano rivals would create increasingly complicated transcriptions to wow audiences in salons, a forerunner to Battle of the Bands nights. It is this virtuosic approach that appealed to Lang Lang when embarking on the project. “We didn’t want this to sound like background music,” he says firmly. “These new versions are tailor-made for me. I wanted something really artistic and pianistic.”

Such sophisticated transcriptions could only be created by composers who are highly talented artists themselves. Natalie Tenenbaum’s incredible “Mary Poppins Fantasy” could almost be a Horowitz encore, while Stephen Hough’s “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” turns Anna’s plaintive phrase into a twinkling showpiece. The arrangers—who, alongside Tenenbaum and Hough include Stephen Walford, Thomas Lauderdale, Randy Kerber, David Hamilton, Stephen Taylor, Gordon Goodwin, Peter Dugan and Michael Kosarin—have preserved the much-loved melodies of the original songs and simultaneously developed the music into something far more substantial than a cover version.

But the piano is not the only star of this show. “We wanted to have lots of different types of music to reflect the variety in the films,” says Lang Lang. “It was so difficult to decide on the shortlist, though; everyone has their favorite Disney song. We had a very serious discussion about the choices!”

Music has always been central to Disney films. Lang Lang says, “When I had the opportunity to visit the Disney archives, I learned so much about the early years of Disney’s animation studios and the very special connection between the moving image and music. Having music at the heart of the films is part of what makes them so memorable.” Silly Symphony was an early series of animated shorts set to pieces of classical music. Eventually the short films incorporated newly composed songs and the first big hit was “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from Three Little Pigs. The ability to tell stories through songs has remained a crucial part of Disney films, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to modern classics like Encanto.

The Disney Book is also the first time that the pianist has collaborated on a recording with his wife, Gina Alice, who sings on the album and performs on tonight’s concert. Like many of the other collaborators, Gina also has previous Disney credentials: She sang the Mandarin version of “All Is Found” from Frozen 2.

The couple have a dedicated audience at home. “Our son is a year-and-a-half, and he loves Disney,” says Lang Lang. “Gina played ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ and danced a tango with him—he was so happy!” And that’s what Lang Lang: The Disney Book is all about: joy, love, and happiness.

—Claire Jackson