Dang Thai Son: Moving On, Staying Put

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Like all performing artists, Dang Thai Son has modified his schedule to adapt to the ravages of COVID-19. The benefit concert he was to give in Bourgie Hall in April for Camp musical Tutti, of course, did not take place.

Nor will the Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in October. That prestigious event, in which Son was to serve as a jury member, has been pushed for- ward to October 2021. We can expect a new date also for the Tutti concert.

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The year 2020 will be remembered by many as a time when almost nothing, artistically, happened. Still, this Vietnamese-born pianist continues work as a teacher. He starts in September on the faculty of the New England Conservatory in Boston, adding these duties to those he already performs for the Oberlin Conservatory in Cleveland.

All this from his home in Montreal. “Love my place, the city, my friends,” he wrote in an email. Son’s situation in many ways reflects the new teaching template across North America. Most conservatories and universities have drafted online strategies, although with pan- demic numbers plunging in many communities, final decisions remain on hold.

In Montreal, Canada’s COVID-19 hotspot, online teaching is the only practical option for the time being. Most assume it is a barely adequate solution. There are, surprisingly, some upsides. “Online lesson quality depends first of all on wifi speed,” Son says. “Then on good equipment and a good app.”

Most teachers use the usual suspects: Zoom, Facetime or Skype. Son prefers Violy, a specialty music teaching app of Chinese origin that is designed primarily for string instruments but useful also for the piano.

This app appropriates some of the traditional functions of a teacher. It tracks time spent practising and renders judgements on intonation (not an issue for piano students) and rhythmic accuracy.

“The student has to prepare better for the lesson,” Son says. “He or she has to record the piece before the lesson and send the recording to the teacher for audition. That means the student learns the piece faster and learns a lot by listening to the recording alone.”

The downsides, of course, are the absence of physical contact and a sound quality that, however sophisticated the playback equipment, lacks the detail and resonance of the real thing.

All the same, it is probable that remote learning will play a substantial role in performance education even when the pandemic subsides. It is interesting that the teaching position Son will no longer occupy, after 20 years, is at the Université de Montréal.

There are no hard feelings. But the allure of two famous American schools appealed to Son’s sense of adventure. And it does not hurt that the Oberlin position is tenured.

“I will miss the French connection of Montreal,” he says, French being a former official language of Vietnam. Not that the language of instruction at a performance faculty necessarily conforms to the cross-campus norm.

English tends to be the lingua franca of Asian students. Son at present has three students from Vietnam, with whom he communicates, not surprisingly, in his native tongue. As a former student at the Moscow Conservatory, he can also make himself understood in Russian. “And some Japanese,” he adds. “Mostly for teaching purposes, and shopping!”

This multilingualism is a central element of Son’s global success as a teacher and competition juror. Another is his Van Cliburn-like status as a “first” – in his case, the first Asian to win gold in Warsaw, in 1980. This remarkable dis- tinction made him an instant celebrity in Japan, where he lived before moving to Montreal.

His rise was from humble beginnings. Born in Hanoi, Son grew up in the countryside during the Vietnam War, listening to Chopin as played by his mother (and first teacher) on an upright piano salvaged from what is now the Vietnam National Academy of Music.

Herself a former resident of Montreal, this remarkable woman, Thai Thi Lien, can be seen on YouTube giving a glowing performance of Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor Op. 67 No. 4 in 2017 at age 100. She and her sister were the first Vietnamese professional pianists to be educated at the French school in Hanoi.

As for Son, he came to the attention of Isaac Katz, a visiting Russian pianist, who arranged for his admission to the Moscow Conservatory, where his classmates included Ivo Pogorelich (with whom he ended up competing in War- saw) and Mikhail Pletnev. Such was his progress that Sviatoslav Richter, perhaps the most famous of all Soviet-era pianists, chose Son to fill in for him in a recital in Japan.

That launched an Asian performance career that has never quite been equalled in the West. Still, after a successful appearance with the MSO in 1989 (the late Neville Marriner was guest conductor), Son decided to settle in Montreal.

By no means did this decision interfere with his activities abroad. It was as a teacher at the In- ternational Piano Academy Lake Como that he became linked with Oberlin, where the elite Ital- ian camp started a branch plant in 2016. “The chemistry was right,” Son said.

While Son has risen steadily in his professional standing as a pedagogue and jury member, he remains, at 61, a rare commodity on the Western stage. This in spite of a substantial discography on JVC, the Japanese Victor Company, including recordings on a restored 1849 Erard piano. Two Nocturnes played on this piano were included in a two-volume 2018 Deutsche Grammophon release of Chopin on period instruments.

After the return of normal concertgoing, and in-person teaching, might the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Cleveland Orchestra notice the new performer in their midst?

“You know the situation,” Son said. “They do not approach me because I am not famous enough to fill the hall.”

Digitally? Anything is possible.






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About Author

Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. From 2019-2021, Arthur was co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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