There's a genuine note of excitement in Lang Lang's voice when he talks about returning to Tucson for a recital this weekend.
"I really enjoy always coming back to this wonderful city," he said. "And Tucson is a very cultured city. I was really impressed when I was (18) to play in Tucson, to have wonderful music lovers to be around. We had such a good time together. I never forget that."
As far as he remembers, that first Tucson concert with the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music in 2000 was his fourth American concert, following his stunning last-minute debut at Chicago's Ravinia Festival the summer before replacing an ailing Andre Watts.
He has returned to Tucson three times since then - in a sold-out recital with the Friends three years after his debut, with the China Philharmonic in 2005 and last year with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.
In many ways, this fifth concert on Sunday with UApresents brings him full circle. He will return to just him and the piano in a recital of Mozart sonatas and Chopin ballades.
"In America it is not easy to play piano recitals these days," he said en route to recitals in Texas last week. "Cultural things are still very popular, but chamber music is very difficult in this country. And I am very happy that Tucson has kept this wonderful tradition."
The recital allows him to revisit his relatively newfound love of Mozart.
"Mozart is someone that I didn't do as much as I wanted, so this year I am playing three sonatas in a row for the first time," said Lang, 30. "I'm very excited because all those pieces I knew as a very young kid. But at that time I didn't really understand. Mozart for me was very difficult to understand when I was a little kid. It wasn't until much later that I felt attached to Mozart. And I always found this very strong connection between Mozart and Chopin, because Chopin learned all those operatic interpretations for the piano using many of the singing techniques … that were Mozart's specialities. … So that is why I'm playing Mozart and Chopin on one recital."
Since we first met Lang, he has matured into an internationally renowned pianist, famed for his critically acclaimed virtuosic playing and showmanship. But these days, he wants to be known just as much for his mission to mentor the next generation of classical musicians.
Two days after he plays Tucson, Lang and a few friends, including violin great Joshua Bell and actor Alec Baldwin, will share the Carnegie Hall stage for a special fundraising concert to benefit the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. The foundation mentors young musicians and looks for inventive ways to rejuvenate music education.
"We are starting to do more creative events (to make) people interested in classical music. There is a team of volunteers working with us. They are very enthusiastic about this art," he said. "I think we should support (the next generation). I want to do something that is meaningful."
If you go
•What: Lang Lang in concert.
• When: 7 p.m. Sunday.
• Where: Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd., on the University of Arizona campus.
• Tickets: $60 to $180 through uapresents.org
• Reservations, information: www.uapresents.org or 621-3341.
Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 5 in G Major; Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major; and Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor.
Chopin's Ballade No. 1 Op. 23 in G minor; Ballade No. 2 Op. 38 in F major; Ballade No. 3 Op. 47 in A-flat Major; and Ballade No. 4 Op. 52 in F minor