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Dang Thai Son was the First Prize winner at the 1980 International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. The field that year included Angela Hewitt, a 17-year-old Kevin Kenner, and most notably, the Yugoslavian pianist Ivo Pogorelich. With his victory, Dang became the first pianist of Asian descent to win top honors at a major international piano competition. Below is the transcript of our September 22, 2011 conversation with Dang Thai Son, which took place at his home in Montreal, Canada.
EH: Can you describe your unique connection with Chopin ?
Dang Thai Son: I was born during the war in Vietnam, and when I was very young, we had to evacuate and move into the mountains. There was of course no electricity at the time, and even more difficulties learning music and getting our hands on musical scores. There were all kinds of shortages with respect to materials and information. And there were obviously no concerts and no recordings. This period was totally a kind of darkness.
But suddenly, with Chopin, I got very lucky. In 1970, my mother was invited to attend the international Chopin competition in Warsaw as a guest, to simply observe. Being a pianist herself, she brought back from the competition complete scores and sets of recordings of Chopin’s works. The first music I heard in my life, the very first recording, was Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor played by Martha Argerich. I was so impressed. I did not have any music of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, only that of Chopin.
If I think back, when I was maybe eight or nine years old and still living in the mountains, I can remember my first contact with Chopin’s music. I was with my mother, and I read his scores, silently in the dark, using only lit candles. My mother played some short melodies for me – nocturnes and mazurkas. I felt it was all so beautiful and I fell in love with this music. I learned his music day and night, and I could feel Chopin’s music in my blood from then on.
EH: You were the first Asian pianist to win a major international piano competition. Did you encounter any difficulties or discrimination trying to build a career ?
Dang Thai Son: When I first arrived in Warsaw for the 1980 Chopin competition, I actually did not even consider winning any big prizes, let alone the First Prize. I was very young at the time and I just loved Chopin. I wanted to be in Poland for the event, to simply pay a kind of homage to the composer. This was really already a great pleasure for me and I was totally unprepared for many things. For one, I did not even own a concert suit!
Before the Chopin competition, I had never before given a public recital in my life. The competition was actually my very first one (laughs). Before the Chopin, I was nothing more than a simple student at the Moscow Conservatory. Nobody knew me and I had never taken part in any competitions. I had never played with an orchestra either. And so, that’s why I did not have a concert suit (laughs).
At the time, applications for the Chopin competition were only done by paper. There were no tapes or recordings to be sent. The committee later told me that my application had almost been rejected because it was empty, except for two lines – born in Hanoi, Vietnam, and now studies at the Moscow Conservatory (laughs).
But finally, they accepted my application for two reasons. 1) It was the first time that a pianist would represent Vietnam – thus adding to the list of countries taking part in the competition. And 2) I was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, ensuring that I was not some amateur who didn’t know how to play the instrument (laughs).
If there was ever any kind of discrimination, it might have come only after the results of the Chopin competition, and it was probably more for political reasons. As you know, we’ve all heard about the Ivo Pogorelich scandal.
Martha Argerich quit the competition when Pogorelich did not reach the final stage of the competition, and at that moment, it was still unclear who would be the winner. But many people at the time actually misunderstood and believed that Martha Argerich quit because there had been some problem between Pogorelich and myself. She actually made the beautiful gesture, once she returned home to Geneva and learned of the results of the competition, of sending a public telegram to the Warsaw competition committee, congratulating me.
Pogorelich may have also been a symbol of the West at the time, and being from Vietnam, I might have been put on the side of the Communists. So of course, Ivo was able to travel easily to give concerts in the West, etc. I had many political difficulties to go from one country to another. My first concert in the United States was in 1989, nine years after the competition; there had been an embargo against Vietnam at the time.
I was quite innocent and a bit fragile (laughs). I encountered many difficulties and it really was not easy, even though I never expected any of this. But for me, the important thing is that I took my own way, went slowly, and tried to climb up and up. It was never a question of being famous for me but to always be mindful of the artistic values, to always improve my playing. After the competition, I went back to the Moscow Conservatory to continue my studies.
For every concert I had to give in the West, there were many complications for me. I had to get permission from the Vietnamese government, they had to go through the Vietnamese embassy in Moscow, then they to go to the other country’s embassy, etc. To make a visa at the time often took two months or more, and I lost opportunities to make a career because of these political difficulties.
And many of these problems were very discreet, just something that one could feel for certain reasons, but I did feel them at times. A critic in Switzerland was once very mean. About my Schubert and Chopin playing, he said, ‘This guy played piano the way Asians eat with their chopsticks’. It was a very bad, very uncomfortable feeling to read this. He simply felt that an Asian playing Western music was an uncomfortable sight. This might be the only time I ever felt direct racism.
EH: Thank you for sharing that. I would love to hear your thoughts now on the matter of piano technique: are today’s pianists equipped with better technique, better mechanisms than the pianists of the so-called Golden Age ?
Dang Thai Son: I think this is a tough question. I think it is very difficult to compare. The instrument today is totally different. With respect to the mechanics and the projection of sound, much of the technique of Chopin - for example, the A minor Etude, Op. 10 No. 2, is so easy to play using the old pianos. The keyboard action is so very light. But with today’s modern piano, it is so heavy that it really is a big challenge. Though, so far, pianists in today’s competitions don’t appear to be affected by this problem (laughs).
This probably means that today’s pianists have kept a good technical level. Modern society has probably also influenced the tempo and speed; everything is faster than before. Today, we also live with digital technology, and somehow, we are more concerned with digital perfection (laughs).
Fifty years ago, we could maybe listen to the great masters and all of their wrong notes, and this was acceptable. But today, I think no pianist can survive with so many wrong notes. They would have no career.
EH: From watching you in concert, you have a very unique mechanism. Your fingers are very active. Did this come naturally to you, or was this taught ?
Dang Thai Son: I have to say that this is something that is a bit typical of the Russian school, which requires a strong, leading-role of the fingers. People seem to be a bit obsessed with this. When I arrived at the Moscow Conservatory, my professor told me that I had very weak fingers, and he said that I had to improve this. So I paid lots of attention to improve this. Luckily, this still brings many benefits.
EH: Which is the most difficult Chopin etude for your hand ?
Dang Thai Son: I separate them in groups (laughs). There are the ones in A minor Op. 10 No. 2 and Op. 25 No. 11, les tierces (Op. 25 No. 6), and the octaves (Op. 25 No. 10). Physically, everyone is built differently. But for me, I would have to say probably the Op. 25 No. 8 (laughs). This one is a bit uncomfortable for me.
EH: This is the 200th Anniversary of Liszt’s birth. What are the key differences with respect to pianistic writing style and musical effects between Chopin and Liszt ?
Dang Thai Son: For many aspects, this is really a very deep question. Let’s make it easier (laughs). They looked like each other, they were both romantics, and they were both revolutionary in some way – but somehow, they were like a sun and moon difference.
With Chopin, the piano as an instrument started to have a new soul, a new sound, a new poetry. But really, it was with this new sonority that Chopin created something totally new. By this, we mean that Chopin was somehow trying to find the secret, the very intimate side of the piano. With much of his music, the focus seems to be more towards the inside.
Liszt, on the other hand, made the piano sound like an orchestra – a big orchestra. And when one tries to make the piano sound like an orchestra, it cannot sound quite as subjective or intimate as Chopin’s music. It is all the more spectacular.
Both Chopin and Liszt brought a new technique to the piano, and in different ways. We all know that their etudes presented challenges that were really quite different. Chopin very much brought into question the matters of sound and finger technique; Liszt brought a kind of bravura that sounded orchestral.
And I also think that the subject-matter was very different. With Chopin, his music was always concerned with very personal drama; it was always about ‘me, me, me’. With Liszt, on the other hand, a very important part of his music was the fantasy, his imagination, the very character of the music. With Liszt, we have the mysterious aspect, the religious aspect, and these were so very important.
EH: You have judged the last two editions of the Chopin competition in Warsaw. What do you think Chopin would have to say about today’s performance practices ?
Dang Thai Son: I think he would really love and be fascinated by the instrument today, whether it be with the modern Steinway, the Fazioli, or the Yamaha - it doesn’t matter. In comparison with Chopin’s period, the potential to express music on the modern instrument is so large today. Not quite sure about the concert halls.
But with respect to the interpretation aspect, I am sure that not only Chopin, but even the older generations, the masters of the past, they might believe that the young people are playing too loud and too fast. They might be losing the soul of the music. With Liszt, maybe sometimes this is okay. It is such shining and spectacular music! But with Chopin, it is really about the secret, the intimacy of the music. I think Chopin might have liked to listen to some of his works played at a slower tempo.
EH: What advice would you give to students who are struggling to realize the spirit of Chopin’s music ?
Dang Thai Son: I think today, the younger generation has greater technical means to reach where they would like to go, musically. With the internet, there is Youtube, and at any time, one can find anything.
The big challenge today is that Chopin is a Romantic after all, and his music has to do with real emotions, a very personal emotion with soul. Today, with all of our information and modern technology that surrounds life and speeds it up, digital perfection tends to make things more rational. But one cannot play Chopin without experiencing life either.
It is so important to have human contact. If you love someone, what does this mean today ? E-mails ? Text messages ? But you have to experience the range of emotions, the excitement of waiting for a love letter to come in the mail, seeing and touching the ink on the letter that someone has personally written with. These things are so fresh and direct to our emotions. And so, today, it is a bit more difficult to find a connection with nature, with human contact. These are all the different states of human emotion and feeling.
EH: Many people were surprised by the result of Yulianna Avdeeva winning over Ingolf Wunder and even Daniil Trifonov at the Chopin competition last year. Were you in agreement with the final placement of these artists at the Chopin competition ?
Dang Thai Son: Actually, on the competition website, you can now see all the voting details for the first time. It’s quite revolutionary to see how each jury member voted for each candidate through the rounds. And it’s really quite fun to take a look at this (laughs).
In the final round of the competition, every jury member agreed that the field was very strong, maybe even the highest level of playing in the history of the competition. For this reason, most judges preferred to have two names down for the First Prize. I put down Yulianna Avdeeva together with Ingolf Wunder as my top choices.
But I would like to say that Wunder is actually closer to my own personal taste. Yulianna was maybe more stable in the competition; she was very stable throughout all four rounds. Her level of playing was indeed very high. Somehow, it turns out that each jury member wrote down their personal favorite, PLUS Yulianna (laughs). So finally, she got very high points.
EH: What did you think of Daniil Trifonov, who won the Tchaikovsky competition in 2011 ?
Dang Thai Son: We actually played together last week in Poland at the Chopin festival. I’ve played with him twice now. The first time was in Germany last year, right after the Chopin competition. We shared the stage; he played the first part and I played the second part. And last week was a joint concert with many pianists.
I have to say that if we are talking about Chopin and the Romantics, Trifonov is a very romantic type, very passionate. He is really a very great talent and plays in a very natural way. There is really nothing artificial there. I would say that he really changed and matured enormously after the Chopin competition. This might explain his winning the Rubinstein and the Tchaikovsky competitions later on.
At the Chopin competition, we actually spoke with him. He recognized that there was something not so stable in his playing. I would say that his best came in the second and third rounds; the first round was maybe not as convincing. Especially in the final stage, with the concerto, he said that it was his first time playing it with the orchestra, and he said that the tempo was a bit too fast and more hurried than what he was used to.
So Chopin at the time was maybe not him at his very best. But after these programs, when he was warmed up, his playing became really very wonderful. I think Daniil Trifonov is a name that we will hear again many times in the future. He will become one of the main pianists for the younger generation.
EH: What is the greatest musical moment you have ever experienced ?
Dang Thai Son: The greatest moment may have been my first public concert at the Chopin competition (laughs). People often later asked me, ‘How did you win the competition ?’, and I simply told them, “Because I was like a virgin on stage!” (laughs). It was my first public performance and everything was so new, so fresh and pure – it all happened just one time.
Of course, with respect to listening to another performer, someone whose playing made me feel was unreachable was Vladimir Horowitz.
EH: What is it about Horowitz’ playing that impresses you most ?
Dang Thai Son: Let me tell you the story. I was still at the Moscow Conservatory, and how I got into his 1986 Moscow concert was like a Hollywood detective movie (laughs). There were seven levels of control to get through in order to get tickets to this one-time concert. There was the police, the ticket-control people, etc., and I was a success just to get in.
The concert was just unforgettable. I still have in my mind’s ear, in my memory, the sound of his piano. The sound and his touch, and how he came to a level where nothing seemed to affect him, was just incredible. The concert was being broadcast live worldwide at the time. We normally get very nervous, but imagine the whole world watching! But he just came on-stage and looked into the camera like a kid, as if it was a children’s toy!
He made real music there and nothing bothered him. He had prepared mentally so that nothing would bother him. It did not feel like a concert, but that he was just making music. He started with the Scarlatti Sonatas, and it just felt like he was speaking to us, but with sound. I can see it so transparently now.
EH: Did you ever meet Sviatoslav Richter or Emil Gilels ?
Dang Thai Son: I had more opportunities to be in some contact with Richter. Of course, I went to listen to many of his concerts in Moscow. The first time we met was actually in Japan.
At the time, he had his own music festival, and he had planned to play over three consecutive evenings. The first evening was devoted to 18th century music, the second to the 19th, and the third to the 20th. He played the first two concerts and suddenly, did not want to play the last one. So there was a panic, and the agency asked if there was someone who could replace him.
They offered him a list of replacement pianists, with the condition that the chosen pianist would have to play 20th century music. Luckily that season, I had played many works by Prokofieff, Scriabin, and Debussy. So Richter looked at the list of pianists that the agency had given him, and he chose me as his replacement.
So after these concerts, we met several times. He later invited me again to play at his music festival in Moscow, which was at the Pushkin museum around Christmas time.
At the piano, Sviatoslav Richter looked like a lion, full of life and passion. But as a man, he was the simplest person, even a bit shy. He made me feel very comfortable from the first moment I met him. I was shocked by this.
I only met Emil Gilels in concert, and he was a little bit more difficult as a person. My teacher, Vladimir Natanson, and Gilels’ family were very close friends. But I never dared to get any closer to him (laughs).
EH: You’ve given master-classes all over the world. Have you noticed any differences with respect to performance practices, technique, and preparation, between students from the East and the West ?
Dang Thai Son: Surely, there are some differences. Actually, in Russia, they tend to avoid all kinds of mechanical exercises. Everything is connected to the piece of music. You can fix many technical problems when you are properly connected with the music. But maybe it is not a question of individual practice methods, but the role of the teacher and the way they coach the student. In Russia, when you work with technique, there is real coaching. The professor sits with you and spends hours to bring up the level of technique. But this type of thing is not as popular in America. These practices tend to take a lot of time and maybe in America, people tend to find many rational solutions to fix technique. Russians perhaps come more from intuition, and technique is perhaps not the primary problem that they work on. They tend to explore the spirit and character of the music, really.
EH: Stories about his learning facility and memory have circulated. Did you ever meet Mikhail Pletnev ?
Dang Thai Son: Yes, I did. Actually, back at the Moscow Conservatory, Pletnev, Pogorelich and myself lived in the same student-housing building. It was not so easy to have communication with them; they knew their value (laughs).
Before the Chopin competition, there were the auditions, and I passed the Soviet Union audition ranked No. 1. After this, they started to become curious about me. Pletnev came to hear me at a concert once. Pogorelich also invited me to his room to listen to all sorts of recordings.
At the time in Moscow, Western recordings were not easy to come by. We could only find recordings of the Soviet artists or those from Eastern Europe. But Pogorelich had a way of buying recordings from Western Europe. And when he invited me to his room, it was a big privilege (laughs).
About Pletnev, curiously, he and Andrei Gavrilov are of the same generation, but totally different types. Gavrilov seems to play with a bit more intuition; there is a certain wild spirit. But Pletnev is amazing, the intellectual aspect of his playing. For him, everything is so easy.
With Pletnev’s teacher, Professor Flier, I remember one time he told Pletnev, ‘Ok, now you go home and prepare this Beethoven concerto,’. Pletnev went home and forgot which concerto he was supposed to learn. And so, at his next lesson, he brought all five concertos memorized and ready to play (laughs).
EH: Is it necessary for young pianists to study the great recordings of the past ?
Dang Thai Son: I think it is always useful, but guidance is needed. It could be positive, but also very negative. Great artists always come with a great personality, and if a child is not ready to understand the difference between these personalities and the intentions and spirit of the composers, then this can be a very negative influence. They might be inclined to mix-up the two. So listening with guidance, to have someone explain what they ought to be listening for, is probably the best way.
EH: What are your thoughts on the phenomenon of Lang Lang ?
Dang Thai Son: (laughs) I think he is special. Especially in China, he is an example that many people have to follow. For this, I would like to be more reserved.
There are many different types of pianists. Some musicians are able to give an immediate impression. But one must also appreciate the highest level and value of musicians. This, you can only learn through education. So I think that there is a pianist for every taste, and Lang Lang is one type. But he is not for everyone.
EH: Great musicians of the past have said that in order to develop and mature as a musician, it is necessary to read and learn about the world and other art around us.
Dang Thai Son: I would say that even more important than this - learning all kinds of things and art around music - is to live life itself. We always say ‘Art mirrors life’. Our personal lives and our art are very closely connected. If you only practice all day and all night, you will never get anything. You have to truly have something to say with your music, and this comes only from life experience. You have to know joy, happiness, the pains of life, suffering, everything. Then you will be able to express it in your music.
EH: Outside of music, is there any art-form that has truly captured your imagination ?
Dang Thai Son: I have always loved many different kinds of art. Perhaps one of the most recent ones that combines epochs and technology is cinema. It can save you a lot of time to learn about different things (laughs). As you know, I missed many things during my childhood due to the circumstances, but movies have given me some knowledge about things I could not have experienced. But also, the structure, the planning of a movie, the conflicts, contrasts, lighting, the feeling of space and timing have actually helped me in my playing.
EH: What are your thoughts on the spiritual element of music ?
Dang Thai Son: I think that if we go by the orthodox way, the way things should be, we should always be trying to catch the spiritual sense, the ideas and messages of the composer that we are performing. If we do this, then we are realizing the goal of the interpreter. Today, we seem to see much of the personality of the performer into the music, perhaps even more so than that of the composer. But I believe that I belong to those striving to be in the first group.
EH: Is the future of classical music secure for the younger generation ?
Dang Thai Son: I think that the role of classical music in society is still there, but in a very different way now. Today, we have to accept that there is the influence of technology, and the internet definitely plays a role. Information is like a jungle today, and we have to be more selective.
By this, I mean that we must carefully choose the profession of music. The musicians at the very top of the profession, they will never have problems; they will only receive more engagements. But there is a huge range of pianists in the world, and there might not be room or market for many of these. But there are still many things that students can do that are connected to music.
EH: In your opinion, what is the purpose of Art in society ?
Dang Thai Son: If we look closely at reality and life today, there are many people who have great difficulties, even with something as basic as survival. There are many real problems in this world. Art is not necessarily there just to entertain, but it is an education, one that is very important.
Art brings the positive side to life. It is a question of beauty, of courage, and of humanity. For music, it only lifts people higher. You can never listen to great music and feel ugly -- it simply does not bring you to that negative side. In other arts, it might be easier to define a positive and a negative side, but with music, because the language is so abstract, everything goes straight to beauty and humanity.
EH: What impression would you like to leave with your admirers, and is a life in music everything you once dreamed it would be ?
Dang Thai Son: My dream was a very modest one. I had to do something for my own country. It has not been thirty years since the Chopin competition, and I am still the only one to have an international career. So more and more, I devote time towards teaching, not just in one school, but master-classes around the world. I try to encourage the younger generation in Vietnam. We have an international competition there - the next one will be the second edition of it – and there are scholarships for young artists, etc.
At the same time, recordings are also very important to leave behind. So I do pay a bit more attention to this. I simply hope to leave something for the next generation.
EH: Professor, thank you very much for your time.
Dang Thai Son: Thank you, Elijah!