Volume 6 Issue 5 - February 2001



"True to its talent-spotting

reputation, the Women's Musical

Club of Toronto opened its ...

season with the local debut of what

is probably one of the most

promising young quartets currently

before the public. "

. The writer quoted above was

William Littler of the Toronto

Star talking about the October 14

1999 performance of the Miro

String Quartet, opening WMCT's

102"d season. But the words could

apply to almost any year you

could name in the last century.

Robin Elliott's entertaining

1997 book Counterpoint to a

City celebrates the "first hundred

years" of the Women's Musical

Club. In it he says:

"During the tenth season ,

two US musicians were presented

in their local debuts -the baritone

Francis Rogers and pianist Olga

Samaroff. In the ensuing ninety

years, the list of artists who have

made their Toronto or Canadian

debuts for the WMCT reads like

a who's who of the great

musicians of this century: Myra

Hess; Wanda Landowska; Mitsuko

Uchida; the Flonz.aley and Kolisch

String Quartets; the Vienna Boys

Choir; Andres Segovia; Szigeti,

Enesco, Grumiaux; Alexander

Kipnis; Marian Anderson;

Leontyne Price; Dietrich Fischer­

Dieskau ... . "

This month's WMCT

Toronto debut recital by pianist

Dang Thai Son promises to add

another pearl to that string.

Vietnamese-born Dang Thai Son

burst, seemingly from nowhere,

onto the world stage in 1980,

when he was awarded the First

Prize Gold Medal at the tenth

Chopin Piano Competition in

Warsaw. His resume since then

reads like a guide to the world's

concert halls; conductors and

orchestras. ·

But when he takes the

Walter Hall stage February 8 he

will pull no punches, packing into

the daunting all-Chopin first half

of his program as much

excitement and challenge as

many artists would into a whole


"The program for this

Toronto concert is what it is

because I consider it my real

Toronto debut. So I want to show

the best I can do - the most

Cover Story

WMCT welcomes Dang Thai Son

beautiful, Chopin's chef

d'oeuvre. The first half of the

program is therefore all Chopin.

From the point of view of form it

encompasses everything, the big

·and the small, the mazurka and

,the polonaise." ..

The second half of the

program is French - Debussy and

Ravel. "It is the school that I

very much enjoy. And again

there is the contrast - in the

Debussy the small elements, and

with the Ravel, the large. For me

Debussy and Chopin come from

the family of Mozart -

but contemplative."


The place of western classical

music in the Indo-China of Dang

Thai Son's youth was tenuous at

best. There was ofcourse a

massive French influence, born

of nearly one hundred years of

colonization. "I was born in what

was then Saigon," he says. " It

was still a French colony and my

mother and my aunt were

schooled in the French system,

becoming the country's first

teachers of western classical

piano. "

Then came the American

36 wholenote FEBRUARY 1, 2001 - MARCH 7, 2001

And then in 1970 his mother

was invited to attend the Chopin

competition in Warsaw, as an

observer. "She brought back the

complete Chopin scores and a

recording - Martha Argerich,

her competition-winning

performance in 1965- the e minor

(Concerto #1) with the op. 59

mazurkas. I was twelve years old

at the time. It changed me."

"In my learning I was

fortunate to get both sides" he

says. "My mother's teaching -­

the French school -- taught some

things very well - strong finger

technique, and velocity. Then in

my Russian years I was able to

build on it the more massive and

architectural side. In the Russian

school, everything is grande. It is

perhaps because Russia comes to

classicism and romanticism all at

once, I suppose, with Glinka. It

is all suddenly just there."

The years in Russia almost

didn't happen, though. "There

was a cultural exchange. Three or

four students a year would be

chosen. But my father Dang Dinh

Hung was a poet - a dissident,

which went against me."

Then, in 1974 a visiting

war and in 1965 the whole Hanoi . Russian pianist Isaac Katz heard

Conservatory of Music was the sixteen year-old play, and

moved into the mountains to made it his business to get him to

avoid the bombing. Seven year Moscow - to the Moscow State

old Dang Thai Son went too. Tchaikovsky Conservatory. "Katz

"There were no roads; no is now in Jerusalem. All my key

way really to take pianos. But teachers in Moscow were Russian

they did-two grands and a few Jews - Katz, Vladimir Natanson,

uprights, across four rivers with Dmitry Bashkirov. Bashkirov is

no bridges, using buffalo. Of now in Spain and his students are

course when they arrived remarkable."

everything was broken apart. We The 1980 Warsaw Chopin

had to share time. I remember I competition was the turning

would have 20 minutes a day point in his life. "It was curious

only to play piano."

that I even came to be there.

Music had a function in There were no audition tapes at

wartime. "All of us piano the time, no videos. It was all on

students had to study accordion as paper. And I had no concert

a second instrument, so the music history to send. I had never

could be taken where it was played with an orchestra. Finally

needed, although at first I was I was accepted I think because

exempt because I was too small Moscow was what it was, so by

to carry the instrument." being there I couldn't be that bad.

And also, I think, because I was

It was there in the mountains, the first Vietnamese who had

that his link with Chopin was applied."

made. "I am really connected to The competition itself never

Chopin. It is a special

felt like a competition, he says,

. relationship. I remember because making it past the first

listening to my mother playing round was already beyond his

pieces of music I liked very expectations. "The only thing I

much. It was Chopin - the became scared of," he says, "is

Nocturne in c minor and the that I had no suit. It was all right

Berceuse, some mazurkas." for the first couple of rounds, but

then we ran around to department

stores. There was nothing. This

was eastern bloc. And I was too

small. Finally a tailor was

ordered to prepare a suit for me,

in twenty four hours .."

The final was, he says,

"inspiration upon inspiration. For

me there was nothing to fear.

Nobody knew me. It felt fresh."

His victory began to change

the attitude to western classical

music in Vietnam, he says. And

in the immediate short term it

saved his father's life. "He was

in hospital with a tumour on his

lung, and the situation was

palliative only. He was a

dissident. There would be no

treatment. But with my arrival

after the competition, suddenly

the finest surgeon was available.

He survived ten more years."

Dang Thai Son lived in

Moscow from 1977 till 1987,

then went to Japan, touring from

there. In 1989 he made his first

visit to Montreal. "Right then I

knew, this is where I want to be"

he says. In 1991 he returned to

live in Montreal, and in 1995

became a Canadian citizen. He

has played with all Montreal's

major ensembles, but though

Montreal is his home "my work

takes me everywhere-this year I

go to Boston, then Toronto, then

Hamilton, then Japan, China,

Russia again. "

"Russia has changed a lot

since my ten years as a student.

Some things are better, some

worse. Concerts in the big cities I

like less than I did. The audiences

all used to be highly cultured, the

atmosphere electric, charged.

Now the typical audience is more

nouveau, the understanding less."

Dang Thai Son's mother is

still with him, at 83 years of age.

She took Canadian citizenship

with him in 1995 and

accompanies him to Japan when

he goes there to teach.

In his future? "I would like

to record all of Chopin" he says.

(Ironically none of his

recordi.ngs, most of them with

Victor in Japan, are normally

available in Canada.) They will

however be available for sale at

Walter Hall the afternoon of

February 8th.

One more memorable

afternoon of music in WMCT's

hundred year gift to the city. I

for one won't miss it.

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