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Legendary pianist Dang Thai Son to perform in Hong Kong in May

Top musician who honed his talent in Hanoi during the Vietnam war is to play a selection of works by Robert Schubert, Paderewski, Franz Liszt and Chopin at the Hong Kong City Hall’s Concert Hall

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 April, 2018, 9:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 April, 2018, 3:08pm

A young boy learns to play the piano in a bomb shelter in war-torn Vietnam. The piano, brought to the relative safety of the countryside on a cart pulled by water buffalo, is broken and infested with rats. When the bombs fall, he takes shelter underground, practising his finger exercises on a keyboard drawn on cardboard. Against these odds, the boy goes on to become a world-respected pianist and an icon of Asian classical music.

This may sound like the plot of film, but it’s the real-life story of Dang Thai Son. Born in Hanoi in 1958 to a poet and an acclaimed musician, Dang soon overcame his difficult beginnings as a musician and, by the age of 22, took home the first prize and gold medal in the 10th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, Poland, in 1980. Dang was the first Asian pianist to win such a major international competition.

Dang has now performed in more than 40 countries, on stages including the at the Barbican Centre in London, the Musikverein in Vienna, the Sydney Opera House, and Suntory Hall in Tokyo. He has played with orchestras including the St Petersburg, Czech, BBC and Moscow Philharmonics, and Orchestre de Paris.

Dang says that his childhood, though at times fraught, was where his lifetime love for music first began, and where he still sometimes looks for inspiration.

“As a child during the American war’s evacuation, listening to my mother play the melodies of Chopin during quiet nights under the moonlight was very inspiring,” he says.

His mother, Thai Thi Lien, the former head of piano at the music conservatory now known as the Vietnam National Academy of Music, who turns 100 this year, remains a big influence on his life.

He also believes his Asian background has played a deep role in developing his musical talents.

“My Asian background gives the sensibility, sonority and delicacy in my playing,” he says, “while on the other hand, it’s not intrinsic for me to have a rational way of thinking nor a sense of a big picture.”

Dang has brought his personal style and philosophy to the music he plays, especially Frédéric Chopin and the French repertoire, of which he is considered a specialist. Over the years, he has refined his style into a recognisable musical personality.

“I have found my own sound, and my own way to make the piano not only ‘sing’ but also ‘speak’,” he says.

What Dang makes his piano ‘say’ has earned him admiration the world over. He has shared the stage with other musical masters, including with cellist Yo Yo Ma, conductor Sir Neville Marriner, the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, horn player Barry Tuckwell, violinist Boris Belkin, and conductor Seiji Ozawa. He also performed in Isaac Stern’s last festival in Miyazaki, Japan, in 2001, which included three performances with violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

Dang says that meeting Stern was one of the highlights of his life in music.

He had recounted to Stern how there was a time when he almost gave up playing Brahms because to play his music, with its big, imposing sound, would require great physical force. “When I want to play powerfully by forcing the muscles, the sound quality is not the same,” said Dang. In response, Stern pointed to Dang’s head and said: “Here is where the force comes from.”

“He made me believe the miracle power of the human brain,” he says.

I have found my own sound, and my own way to make the piano not only ‘sing’ but also ‘speak’
Dang Thai Son

In 1988, Dang was given only two days’ notice to step into the shoes of another great – one of the highest regarded pianists of the 20th century, Sviatoslav Richter. Dang replaced the piano maestro in his own festival in Yatsugatake Kogen Lodge, Japan, in a recital of exclusively 20th-century music.

Years later, during the 2012-2013 season, Dang toured the world with an ambitious programme of all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos in the Beethoven Marathon. Dang considers this his most significant musical project since winning at the International Chopin Piano Competition.

Another high point was performing an Ignacy Jan Paderewski concerto with Russian-Icelandic pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. They had only one short rehearsal for the performance, but it was a great success. The recording was released in 2017.

Not all of Dang’s performances have been on such illustrious stages, however. In Calgary, Canada, Dang was warming up pre-show on a piano in his hotel lobby when a hotel guest gave him an unexpected compliment.

“A man came over and tipped me a US$10 bill,” he says.

Along with performing for some of the world’s most rarefied audiences – as well as unsuspecting hotel guests – Dang has taught piano for 30 years. He is frequently invited to give master classes around the world, such as the class in October 1999 in Berlin, in which he taught alongside Murray Perahia and Ashkenazy, who extended the invitation.

Since 1987, Dang has been a visiting professor at the Kunitachi Music College in Tokyo, and he teaches at the Université de Montreal in Canada.

Dang will this year join a piano faculty for the first time. He will be taking on the role of professor at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, one of the most prestigious music schools in the US.

“I wanted a change from always being a ‘guest’ professor,” Dang says. “Also, the collaboration between Lac Como International Piano Academy and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music is very attractive.”

After his decades of teaching, Dang says that there is one key fact he has learned.

“There are things that are unteachable,” he says.

Musical intuition and sensibility are an innate gift that comes from within. It’s impossible to change.

But while musical genius is, to a certain extent, fixed in the genes, what music is played and appreciated is much more fluid.

“The internet and its tools such as YouTube and Google have drastically changed the world of music,” Dang says. “The number of audiences varies depending on the geography: it’s booming in Asia and uneven in Europe and the Americas.”

“I strongly believe that popular tastes change like fashion but true artistic value does not,” he adds.

For Hong Kong audiences wanting to hear this true artist perform in the flesh, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department is bringing Dang to the Hong Kong City Hall’s Concert Hall on May 26 at 8pm.

Dang will also be heading a masterclass in the Recital Hall, The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, on May 25 from 5pm. Admission is free, with tickets now available on a first-come, first-served basis from the inquiry counter of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Dang says he is looking forward to his upcoming Hong Kong performance.

“I look forward to sharing a musical moment with your knowledgeable audience, visiting old friends and enjoying Cantonese cuisine,” he says.

Dang will be playing a selection of works by Robert Schubert, Paderewski, Franz Liszt and, of course, Chopin at the performance.