Pianist Dang Thai Son was the first Asian to receive the First Prize and Gold Medal at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1980. Now he lives in Canada, but he returns to Viet Nam every year. He has just participated in the Ha Noi International Piano Contest as Honorary Chairman. He spoke to Culture Vulture about this year's competition.
How would you comment on the outcome of this year's competition?
I didn't find a big gap between the level of Vietnamese and foreign contestants, but the fact is that the foreign competitors were more successful. Among 10 foreign competitors, eight won prizes. The first prize in Category B for ages 18-25 went to Jitsukawa Asuka from Japan, while Chon Sae-yoon from South Korea won in Category C for ages 14-17. Vietnamese Phan Thien Bach Anh, who is 10, won first prize in category A for ages 10-13. This year, the competition quality increased because it was the first time contestants in Category B performed with an orchestra. That way, they had to learn to master their selected pieces. If not, their piano melody would be swept away by the other musicians.
How can local piano students get better?
It's easy to train young piano students at home, but when they get older, they need professional training and good conditions to exchange with other pianists abroad. Contestants at the age of B and C categories are required to perform more precisely and express more experience. I see many talents among Vietnamese students, but they are like gems in the rough which need to be polished if they are going to shine.
I'm working as a lecturer at Montreal University, and every year I grant some sponsorships to help Vietnamese students at home and in Canada. They need a chance to study abroad and attend camps to exchange with foreign students and pianists. The conditions for teaching and studying are better abroad than in Viet Nam, but I also see some problems when young students are sent to study abroad. Some talented students in China were trained poorly in foreign countries and then lost their aptitude.
What are your suggestions for students to help them succeed in competitions?
Selecting pieces to perform is very important for piano students. While practising, students should choose pieces that help them repair weak points, but to perform and compete, they should choose pieces which help express their strong points and hide their weak points. Piano teachers in Viet Nam should upgrade their skills and knowledge to help students select suitable pieces to achieve success at competitions. Contestants should also properly estimate their capacity. Those without a lot of physical strength should play Mozart instead of Beethoven.
Who impressed you among the Vietnamese competitors?
I think Luu Hong Quang, who is studying in Australia, is the student with the most potential among the younger generation. Quang has been recognised at many international piano competitions and won first prize at the Lev Vlasssenko Piano Competition last year.
When I won a prize in 1980, professors and the public expressed optimism that Viet Nam could become a leading country in the field of music, and many students were sent to study abroad. But now, I think the only one can bring fame to the country is Quang. It's regrettable that I don't have many other names to tell you. I haven't had a chance to get to know any piano students in southern Viet Nam.
How are you promoting Vietnamese talents?
I presented my own scholarships to contestants in all categories. I have also invited foreign jury members and students a chance to participate in the contest to enhance prestige for it. Sometimes I helped Vietnamese students with my money to attend short courses and camps abroad. Quang received once. In Canada, I take on students strictly and limitedly, but I always give priority to one Vietnamese student to have a seat in my class of six or seven. What I have done is my own choice. I volunteer to help the next generation. — VNS