Lang Lang is only 22 and quite the livewire on the concert stage, but he is desperately tired when I catch up with him at his Wellington hotel.

The young pianist has been 37 hours in the air coming from Dar es Salaam. "That's the longest trip I've ever done," he says.

As if to prove it, I'm given a list of all the airports, followed by a world-weary sigh.

There is, though, an upside to being trapped in planes for so long.

"I listened to lots of pop music," he says, "and I watched six movies."

Lang Lang has been in Tanzania as a Unicef goodwill ambassador, his first time in that role.

"It's been so good to be involved with children, especially those who have never listened to any classical music before. They are so passionate about their life," the Chinese pianist says with a burst of energy.

This time, he was playing his piano "for fun" and "for the street boys, who normally sleep in the street, I gave them Liebestraum, Don Giovanni and some pieces by Chopin".

On Friday night, when he is in town with the NZSO, he is the soloist in Chopin's E minor Concerto.

"It's one of my favourites," he says. "It's a very romantic piece and I'm the right age to play it."

Perhaps it is his punishing concert schedule that prevents him from pursuing his self-confessed romantic bent and the pianist says his life is "quite crazy, although I'm still young. I always try to balance performing with study and learning new pieces".

Lang Lang is famous for having a prodigious 37 concertos in his repertoire and would like to play more Mozart.

"I think Mozart is the most natural of all composers. The melodies may be simple, but they're so difficult to play."

Famous for preferring the live event to the cautious studio re-creation (all his CDs are recorded with audiences), Lang Lang sees a piano concerto as being "like a trio with me, the conductor and the orchestra. It's not like the pianist should be the big boss".

At present he is studying with Christoph Eschenbach and Daniel Barenboim and says that Barenboim - a prodigy in his time - has been a big influence.

"He is always inspiring me to learn what is going on behind the notes and is such a wonderful example himself.

"I simply didn't know music was meant to be like this."

Lang Lang visits China three times a year and is struck by the positive attitude he sees in the younger generation.

His own future was secured when he won first prize at the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians Competition at the age of 13, which "opened up the West for me.

"However, it's been hard for other young Chinese students who came to America without scholarships and, because it was so expensive to live in the West, they had to work every day and had no time to practise."

When, at 15, he began studying with Gary Graffman at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, the two musicians had more than their art in common.

"Gary is very interested in Chinese art and even speaks Chinese. When I auditioned for Curtis I didn't speak English and he translated for me."

Lang Lang also acknowledges the support of his mother and father and, if you have caught up with the pianist's Live at Carnegie Hall album, you will have heard the young man delivering a sprightly Chinese piece alongside his father Guo-ren on the erhu, a Chinese bowed instrument.

For Lang Lang, this was simply "carrying on our family tradition of giving little concerts.

"My father and I, when we do this mix of Eastern and Western music, have a very good chemistry."

Also on the Carnegie Hall disc, in between the Schubert and Chopin, is Tan Dun's Eight Memories in Watercolour.

Lang Lang met the Chinese composer three years ago. "We became very, very close friends, like brothers. This piece has such beautiful colours and concepts and we really do need to have new pieces, otherwise we'd just play the same thing all the time."

I press him for some details of the Piano Concerto that Dun is writing for the pianist's 2005 season, but none is forthcoming. "He is very busy," Lang Lang says. "We have talked through a few ideas, but I'm still waiting."


* Who: Lang Lang, with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

* Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Friday, 6.30pm