One afternoon in 1999 at the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, who was then the festival's artistic director, was scheduled to rehearse with a singer. Before that, the renowned German pianist and conductor received a message that a Chinese boy wanted to play for him. Always interested in helping young musicians, Eschenbach said, "Ok, he can play for 20 minutes."
The Chinese boy was Lang Lang, who had just turned 17 and was studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
The excited and nervous young man entered the chamber hall where the master was standing beside the piano with his arms crossed.
"His noble manner reminds me of the movie Anna and the King. The first impression he gave me was that he really looks like a king," Lang Lang recalls.
Their meeting was intended to be no more than an audition for the young and as yet unknown Chinese pianist. "What do you have? We had only 20 minutes today," says Eschenbach.
"I can play Haydn Sonata, Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven," Lang answers.
"Ok, play me some Haydn," says Eschenbach.
Lang Lang was so excited that he played very fast.
"It's nice, but you'd better play a little slower and more energetically."
But actually, Eschenbach was so impressed by the young Chinese pianist that he kept asking him to play pieces from Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninoff to Tchaikovsky.
"It was stunning. He played Brahms intermezzos with such a profound feeling, a sense of singing," recalls the veteran musician.
"How could a boy who at the time was barely 17 have had such a deep understanding not only of purely virtuosic works but also of pieces such as the Brahms intermezzos?" he says.
"I was fascinated by his talent and still am. He's a complete musician, not only technically gifted, like many young artists from Asia, but above all, immensely musical."
After one hour and a half, the 20-minute audition turned into a veritable recital. "God, I have a rehearsal with a singer," Eschenbach says, and when he got back from his playing, he rushed to open the door and collided with the singer, who had been listening the whole time.
After apologizing, the conductor cancelled the rehearsal and called Zarin Mehta, executive director of the festival to listen to Lang Lang play for another 15 minutes.
Destiny dictated that the young virtuoso and the conductor were not to part company so soon.
The next day, pianist Andre Watts cancelled his concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra because of illness. Eschenbach immediately thought of Lang Lang and suggested, "Let's bring the Chinese boy; he played Tchaikovsky for me, why should not he play with the orchestra?"
Two days later came Lang Lang's big international break. His triumphant debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1 wowed the orchestra and audience.
The dramatic beginning also laid the foundations for a close working relationship that has developed over the years into an unshakable friendship.
As time passes by, the conductor has become more than just a musical partner. "He is my mentor, close friend and like my father," says Lang Lang.
Of this relationship, Eschenbach says: "He senses my idea, and I sense his. We give concerts together, but our musical relationship goes beyond the concert platform. It is a true musical conversation of great profundity. I share with him my experience. He adapts but doesn't copy, he grows his own plant on that ground."
Ever since, Lang Lang has flown to see the conductor every three months. The two play piano together, and discuss and share things with each other. And now Lang Lang is one of the performers with whom Eschenbach appears most often.
Thanks to the Beijing Music Festival, now, local classical music lovers have an opportunity to experience the chemistry between the two.
Tonight, Lang Lang and the Orchestre de Paris under the baton of Eschenbach will play Beethoven's Concerto No 4. The two will also perform Mozart's Concerto for Two Piano in E Major.
Beethoven's works for the piano showcase how Eschenbach shares experiences with the young pianist. Lang Lang has already worked with Eschenbach on Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 4 long before it became one of their lucky pieces and one, moreover, that best reveals the degree of musical osmosis that exists between the pair. Early this year, the two recorded the piece for the Deutsche Grammophon label.
"I started to play the Concerto No 4 when I was 16, and it helped me to understand musically about Beethoven's intensity, the spirit - a very strong personality, it's so rich, so dedicate and so precise," says Lang Lang, who did not know much about the piece when he was in China, until one day he heard one of his colleagues at Curtis playing it.
"It's what we call a 'musicians' piece'. It's so rich, introverted and very important for me, because I used to play some extroverted pieces. This is a very different from the style I played before," says Lang Lang.
"Beethoven often demands extreme precision and will not tolerate approximation. What's so great about Eschenbach is that he has a sense of true rubato and is able to handle it without disturbing the work's overall structure, giving me enough freedom and space to express myself without feeling straitjacketed."
Five weeks ago, Lang Lang played with another great conductor, Daniel Barenboim, to raise the curtain of the Beijing Music Festival at Poly Theater. Tomorrow evening at the same venue, Lang Land and Eschenbach's Orchestre de Paris will close the event in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1, the very piece that the pianist played to kick start his career at the Ravinai Festival eight years ago.