September 1, 1981
YOUNG PIANIST REMINDS THE WORLD VIETNAM IS A COUNTRY OF MUSIC, TOO
By HENRY KAMM, Special to the New York Times
TOKYO— When Dang Thai Son found himself, against his own and everyone else’s expectation, in the final round of last year’s Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, his suit, which he had bought in the Children’s World department store in Moscow, would no longer do. Formal dress was required, not easy to find on short notice in consumer societies, more difficult yet in Poland’s Communist austerity, and impossible when it must fit a Vietnamese of boyish stature who had found his only Western suit on the children’s rack.
The Polish Government intervened, ordering a tailor to run up a formal suit in two days. The pianist, who has just turned 23 years old, considers it only one of the many miracles that have marked his life since then. The first was that he won the contest, a feat that has made stars overnight. From the life of international isolation and physical deprivation that is the lot of the Vietnamese, Mr. Son has burst into instant celebrity, a whirl of wide-ranging travel, public adulation and luxury hotels.
His tour of Japan – 20 concerts in a month – was a sellout everywhere, some recitals were televised live, his records and photos are on display in music shops and his face has become familiar through television interviews. Even his mother, who was also his first teacher, is being asked for her autograph. The Japanese tour followed acclaimed appearances in France and West Germany, where he recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. ‘Gives Much Hope to Others’
”It opened my way to the outside world,” the pianist said softly over breakfast at his hotel here. ”I can travel, and this gives much hope to others in Vietnam that they will be able to do the same.”
Despite his long shock of hair and blue jeans that did not come from Moscow, Mr. Son relates his newfound fame more to his national identity than would musicians from other countries, Western or Communist.
”Most importantly, my sudden success will help to change the thinking of those who know Vietnam only as a country of war,” he said. ”We were understimated. Now Vietnam also speaks to the world in the language of music.”
Mr. Son, who has learned some English in his travels but speaks mainly through his mother – whose French is that of the Saigon upper classes although she has lived in Hanoi for nearly 30 years and apologizes for not having used it for a long time – sees great relevance in having won the contest in Poland and feels a particular affinity for Chopin. Joy Follows Career of Sadness
”His country, too, was occupied, broken up and divided,” he said. ”And Chopin remained very patriotic even while he lived in France. To play Chopin, you must know not only joy but also sadness.”
Mr. Son’s present joys follow a career of sadness, in whose narration son and mother shared volubly, the more so because they had never had an occasion to relate it to an American. Their account disclosed an aspect of North Vietnam during its war against the United States that has never come to outside attention.
The pianist’s mother, Thai Thi Lien, who studied at the Paris Conservatory and completed her education in Prague, began teaching her son in earnest when he was 5. At 8, he passed the entrance examination at the School of Music of Vietnam. A year later, the school, its faculty and 700 students and its 60 pianos were evacuated and dispersed into the countryside between Hanoi and the Chinese border, and continued functioning even under the most intense bombing. Huts Built for the Pianos
”The peasants with whom we were quartered did not like the pianos in their houses because when we played – and each piano was played all day because there were so few – they could not hear the planes approaching,” said Mrs. Lien. She and her son laughed, to keep an American from feeling that they spoke in accusation.
”We built grass huts just for the pianos, and trenches next to them, into which we jumped when the planes came,” Mrs. Lien, who was head of the school’s piano department, said. ”Still we played all day, and in the evening we had very intimate lecture-concerts by candlelight.”
Mr. Son finished his secondary studies in 1976, emerging first in his class, and was sent to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow to study under Vladimir Natanson, whom he reveres.
”Professor Natanson told me that rarely had a student made so much progress as I did in my first year,” Mr. Son said. ”It is not so surprising – it was the first time that I played on pianos that worked well. When I first saw the conservatory, I stood in front of it and admired it and was afraid to enter. They had to come out to bring me in.”
Unlike other winners of major competitions, Mr. Son took only a year’s leave from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory to fulfill some of the engagements that are the reward for the winner in Warsaw’s Chopin Competition. He will return this month to resume his normal studies. ”I have so much to learn,” he said. His mother added, ”He must enlarge his cultural and intellectual baggage.” ‘Memories That Remain’
Mr. Son said he would like to play in the United States but, hinting at possible political considerations, he said, ”There must be more preparations, from all points of view.”
”There are memories that remain, but I want to play in America” he continued. ”Music is universal, and I would like to show that Vietnamese are part of it.”
Asked whether he had had any pleasant contacts with America, he replied quickly, ”Above all with Steinway pianos.”