Friday 24 November 2017

Classical: Genius pianist who survived ravages of the Vietman war

Dang Thai Son
Dang Thai Son

George Hamilton

Five intense hours of international sport lie ahead for Irish fans tomorrow. Two matches, two great venues. And there's a musical connection this week as well. Cardiff, where the Rugby team meets France, has already played host this week to the American pianist Ivan Ilic. One of his major achievements was a 2012 CD featuring a set of Chopin studies, all transcribed for the left hand by a 20th century Polish pianist and composer, Leopold Godowsky.

That takes us to Warsaw where the 17th edition of the Chopin Competition, first held in 1927 and now operating on a five-year cycle, is in full swing.

This international piano festival - only Chopin's music is performed, and everything he ever wrote features the piano in some shape or form - is one of the most prestigious in the world.

It's open to pianists between the ages of 17 and 28, and 160 of them from 27 countries took part in the preliminary stage which started in the spring.

Seventy-eight began the competition proper, which has been running since the start of this month.

The winner, who'll have battled through knock-out rounds to complete an exhausting schedule performing all the musical forms deployed by the composer - études and nocturnes, through waltzes, polonaises, and mazurkas, to one of the concertos - will leave with a gold medal and a prize of €30,000.

The Chopin Competition always takes place around the anniversary of the composer's death - he died on October 17, 1849 - when there's a special commemoration. Mozart's Requiem is performed in the baroque Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw where Chopin's heart rests, preserved in alcohol in an urn placed in a pillar bearing the inscription "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also".

The result will be announced on October 20, and concerts on the three nights following feature the top three from the competition. Previous winners have been some of the greatest contemporary pianists. Maurizio Pollini took the gold medal in 1960, Martha Argerich in 1965. So high is the standard, in fact, that a winner isn't always declared. Second was the top prize awarded in 1990 and 1995.

Though the jury (numbering 17 this year) isn't always unanimous, the competition usually reaches its conclusion without incident. Not so in 1980. Martha Argerich, who performed at the inaugural concert this year before taking her place on the panel, famously walked out, unable to accept her colleagues' verdict on her favourite, the Yugoslav (Croatian) Ivo Pogorelic. She hailed him as a genius. (The rest of the jury may have got it right, The Guardian describing a recent London recital as "truly a gruesome, deeply depressing experience".)

That year, another judge had resigned in protest at the fact that none of his pupils had made it past the opening round. The verdict went to a pianist from Vietnam - Dang Thai Son.

His victory was remarkable on many fronts. Born in Hanoi in 1958, early in the Vietnam War, the family had been evacuated to the mountains. His mother had taught music and played Chopin by candlelight.

She was invited to Warsaw as a guest at the 1970 competition, and brought back recordings. Her boy was hooked. He earned himself a place at the Moscow Conservatory, and that, plus the fact that the Chopin had never had an entrant from Vietnam, got him in in the first place.

He'd never given a public recital, he'd never performed with an orchestra, but he swung the jury with his solo pieces in the second round.

A new international career was born. And he's back this year as a judge.

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