B.Y DAVID PERLMAN "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 recital. "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." romantic 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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