Master Piano Recital Series: Dang Thai Son’s musical journey finds freedom in Montreal

Canadians often take their freedoms for granted. So it is a useful reminder of how much this nation has to talk to someone for whom personal freedom means so much.

Dang Thai Son is such a person. He is also one the best pianists you may not know. He will perform in Ottawa’s S0uthminster Church on June 2 as part of Roland Graham‘s Master Piano Recital Series. Dang has performed in more than 40 countries in places such as the Lincoln Centre in New York, the Musikverein in Vienna, the Sydney Opera House with famous conductors from Sir Neville Marriner to NACO’s former music director Pinchas Zukerman. He’s been on the same stage playing with Yo Yo Ma, Kathleen Battle and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Dang (his first name is Son) was born in 1958 and lived near Hanoi, Vietnam. He grew up in a country torn up by war and oppressed by communism. His father, a poet, was a political prisoner. His mother was a pianist in her own right and a music teacher. When Dang was a young boy, the family was living in the mountains near Hanoi  in virtual isolation because the American B-52s had bombed the roadways into Hanoi city.

The only sheet music that was available to the young boy was Chopin. He studied and practiced until he became good enough to be accepted into the legendary Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory where he excelled. His talent was put before the musical world for the first time when he won top prize at the international Chopin competition in 1980 in Warsaw Poland. His is a long journey to freedom. But before we get to that, he talked about his programme in Ottawa.

He will play Schubert (Sonata No. 21 in B-flat major, D. 960), Lizst ( Les Cloches de Geneve from Années de pèlerinage I, S. 160,
Réminiscences de Norma, S. 394) and “of course” Chopin (Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45, 3 Mazurkas, Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39.

“It’s a challenge because normally you should mix romantic music with contemporary or classical pieces. When you play three romantic composers the challenge is to make them different,” he said over the phone from his home in Montreal. It helps that the pieces by Lizst are extroverted, Dang added. “My piano sounds like an orchestra.”

It’s been many years since Dang was last here, even though he lives just down the road. But much of his concert career is abroad, in Asia where he has strong connections and around the world. He also devotes a lot of time to teaching. And he enjoys the quiet anonymity that he has in Montreal.

“Many Montrealers don’t know that I live here. I have all my freedom. I can do a stupid thing and nobody would know who I am. For me freedom is the best.

“For us, musicians, artists, when we don’t have the right to express what we think, what we feel, it affects our playing, our art. In Canada I am allowed to fully express myself.

“When I was young, my father was a poet and he had a political problem with the (Communist) government and he was sent to the camp. When I was born,  there was a kind of fear already in my family. I lived with it.”

His life in the Vietnamese countryside was “like the stone age. It was very tough,” he said. His mother, Thai Thi Lien, was and remains the centre of his world.

“This year in the fall we will celebrate her 100th birthday. We will mark this celebration with a special concert in a school where she would perform. Last year she participated in a gala celebrating 60 years of the Hanoi Conservatory of Music (now the Vietnam National Academy of Music) the school where she founded the piano faculty. She was one of the first teachers in this school in 1956. She’s the only one left.”

Dang’s mother was born in Saigon during the French colonial period. She survived three wars, and outlived four husbands.

When Dang entered the Chopin competition in 1980, he said he asked the Vietnamese government to allow her to live with him so she could help him. And she remained with him until only a few years ago when the pressures of his schedule nd her need for care meant she returned to Vietnam to live with more settled relatives.

The story of his Chopin win in 1980 seems almost improbable. He was the first Vietnamese pianist to go to the competition and the first Asian to win it. It was also his first ever experience in a recital with an audience and in a performance with an orchestra.

“My application (to compete) was almost rejected because there was nothing there. … They decided to take me (because) it was the first time someone had come from Vietnam.” The fact that he was enrolled in the Moscow conservatory also gave him credibility.

Still he was obviously a newbie. “Since I had never given a concert, I didn’t have a concert suit,” he said. “For the finals an organizer ordered a tailor to make me a suit.” It was a black velvet number that he no longer has.

After Dang’s win he felt he wasn’t quite ready for an international career, so he returned to Moscow to study some more. He changed teachers. His first teacher was Vladimir Natanson who, Dang says, taught him in the Russian tradition of the romantic “singing” piano. His next teacher was equally legendary. Dmitri Bashkirov taught him in the Soviet tradition which is a more intellectual way of playing. Dang says he needed both traditions to reach his full potential.

Today Dang is much in demand as a teacher in his own right. And he is leery of the competitions that are more and more critical a young player’s career.

“Today it’s very tough for young artists. They have to go to a competition to get recognition and start building a career. But it can be very painful. … Sometimes it’s just luck. Hardly anyone is ever lucky when they play first (for example). The judges’ hearing is not attuned yet. Or if you perform at the end of the day, the judges are tired.

After many years in Russia, Dang says he thought he had to move. The best place he thought would be Japan. He had a good manager in Japan. And he got teaching position there. But he says he knew it would only be temporary because it was too far from the centre of classical music.

When the time came to move again, he says he considered three countries. Australia was one possible destination but again it was too far from the places he wanted to play. The U.S. would have been a destination but it had no relations with Vietnam so he would have to seek refugee status and he could not bring his mother with him immediately.

In 1989, he gave a concert in Montreal with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

“I came there and had a look around and I liked it, even in the middle of winter. Cold weather doesn’t both me much, after all I had 10 years in Moscow. I was kind of vaccinated against the cold.”

His mother was comfortable in French and so he decided to apply to emigrate, with his mother, to Canada.

It wasn’t easy, but he had a lot of support in Montreal and he says he even had some help from a woman who would become a princess. Masako Owada and her father, who was a senior official in the Japanese foreign ministry, backed his bid to come to Canada. Masako Owada is married to the Crown Prince of Japan.

MPRS presents Dang Thai Son

Where: Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave.

When: Friday June 2 at 7 p.m

Tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.