IN 1998, 16-YEAR-OLD Chinese pianist Lang Lang burst on the American music scene by nailing Beethoven's sensational Choral Fantasy with the Baltimore Symphony. The young man Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein calls "the most exciting young keyboard talent" he's encountered has been feted by the fates ever since.

Sunday at TCC's Leo Rich Theater, Lang Lang opens the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music's sixth Piano and Friends season.

Lang Lang doesn't come to the stage untested. He has studied piano since he was three--first at the Music College and the Central Music Conservatory in China; now, as the student of Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He's won international prizes and performed across Asia; he's played with the Houston Symphony, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Moscow Philharmonic, the Boston Chamber Orchestra, the Sendai Symphony of Japan, the National Symphony Orchestra of Singapore and the National Symphony of China. In December he will make his St. Petersburg, Russia debut, and in April he will make his Carnegie Hall debut.

Remarkable fortune has fueled his talent. Lang Lang was in Chicago last August to audition for the following year's Ravinia Festival when headliner Andre Watts was forced to cancel his appearance at the Chicago Symphony's final Ravinia season gala concert. With two days' notice, Lang Lang stepped up and played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, and dazzled audience and critics alike. In March of this year, Lang Lang substituted for ailing Richard Goode at Chicago's Symphony Center, and once more wowed critics and audience.

Lang Lang was compared to the young Andre Watts after his Tchaikovsky, with his "fabulous technique, absolute control, flexible rhythm, tone that can switch -- from tornadolike intensity to supple delicacy." He was compared to Horowitz after his Goode substitution, his youthful technical flamboyance not belying a depth of musicality and breadth of repertoire. But he's establishing an unconventional musical persona of his own.

Sunday's program includes works by Haydn, Chopin, Brahms, Scriabin and Balakirev. Unabashedly passionate while playing, Lang Lang should provide an emotionally and artistically charged afternoon of music.

Pianist Lang Lang performs Sunday, September 24 at 3 p.m. at the TCC Leo Rich Theater, 260 S. Church Ave. General admission is $10; students get in for $4. For information, call 577-3769.