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10.11.2010
Category: Interviews

I am a living witness to the changes

An interview with Dang Thai Son, Juror of the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition held in Warsaw.

It has already been thirty years since your victory in Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. How do you feel as a member of the Jury?

It is my second time to be the Juror in Warsaw. For the first time I was here  in 2005. I cannot say that it is something very new for me. Of course this competition is very different from the previous one. There are many organizational changes, such as the programme and the audition of the contestants. Also the composition of the Jury is different from the previous competition.

We all do our best to improve this Competition and to make it more prestigious and I think this is the right direction. We can see, and it’s not only my impression, that the level the contestants present this time is amazingly high. We have not one, not two, but a whole group of wonderful players. The decision of who will win the first prize is very difficult one. It is my great pleasure to sit among such prestigious members of the jury as Professor Jasiński and Martha Argerich. They were assessing me 30 years ago, when I was taking part in this Competition as a pianist. Today we sit together as the Jury.

Which role do you prefer – performing pianist or the member of the jury?

Being a juror is a great opportunity to listen to many young, talented people. Of course it reminds me a little bit of my competition 30 years ago, although that competition was quite different. After the competition, Professor Jasiński told me that in 1980 my application was almost rejected. Back then there was no pre-selection system based on the life performance – such as tapes or recordings, only the paper application was taken into consideration.

My application was almost empty, there were only two lines: "Born in Hanoi – Vietnam" and "study in Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory". There were no activities written, because I have never given any recital. I have never played with any orchestra in my life, I’ve never taken part in any other competition. At that time there were 220 applications. They finally accepted my application for two reasons: It was the first time that someone came from Vietnam and it could show that Chopin is loved even there. The second reason was that somebody said: "This person is studying in the Tchaikovsky Conservatory – so after all, maybe he’s not such an amateur."

How do you think the performance of Chopin’s music has changed over last 150 years? How do you view the modern young people playing Chopin?

Definitively we did not stay in the same place, because life, time and society has  changed. We cannot continue to perform in the museum-style.  We can hear some of the pianists in this competition (I cannot divulge their names) playing in an outdated, old-fashioned way. I don’t understand their reasoning, because today you cannot play like 100 years ago. There has been evolution of understanding of how to play Chopin properly. There was a certain period, long time ago, when pianists exaggerated or even changed the image of Chopin’s music. Some played in a way that was too sentimental or too artificial.

We need to understand that Chopin played in small saloons, not big concert halls with 2000-3000 seats. How can we play intimately in a room that is totally different and using instrument that is completely different? In modern times, young people tend to play his music in more rational way. However, the role of the Chopin Competition is to remind people of tradition. Chopin music cannot be performed too liberally. Chopin always comes from emotions, he comes from certain sounds, poetry, dances have their own certain character for example, there are mazurkas, the polonaise. So, young pianists need to bear it in mind and then this music may be combined with their own personality. But you have to think about Chopin first.  

What do you take into the consideration when you assess the pianist? What do you pay particular attention to?

The evaluation is different each time because we have four rounds. In the first stage, I try to look for truly talented pianists, even if they are not perfect in their technique or the conception, even though they maybe sometimes a little bit controversial. And then – in the second and third rounds we have more challenges for them – the dances – and my criteria of assessing is to look who is an artist and who is just a good student. The jury has to be open- minded  because we often like it when somebody plays the way we do. However, each player has a different personality and they all play differently. You have to be very open- minded to accept different ways of playing.

In the third round, the Sonata form and the Polonaise-Fantasie are extremely complex pieces with a lot of various moods with different types of characters, very dramatic or even tragic. It is a big form, you cannot play it with a lyrical, beautiful sound all the time. So in this stage, we can measure how deep is the pianist's understanding of the music. The Polonaise-Fantasie is one of the latest pieces of Chopin. It is like his autobiography. There is everything: from happiness through religious feelings to suffering. I can see in this piece a person who is dying and can hardly breath... Before the third stage, I was thinking that maybe we would be bored listening 20 times to the Polonaise-Fantasie, but we weren’t at all. It is such a great music. It made me think in many different ways, so I didn’t get tired of listening to it.

Is there anything that you dislike in how young pianists play Chopin? Some of the members for example do not like it when candidates play too loudly...

It’s been already 20 years since I started judging in the international competitions, so thankfully, I have also grown up in my experience of judging.  At the beginning, I paid too much attention to details, such as the kind of sound. It is still important, but it is not the main thing to consider. Sometimes people play beautiful, lyrical sounds which are suitable with some of the pieces, but how can you play in such a soft way when you know that Chopin was actually dying? The death is a dramatic moment. So your play needs to be put in the context.

I don’t like it when some young pianists try to play in a more attractive way, when they look for the effect. Sometimes it is so sophisticated that even the audience cannot really notice it; they are so skillful. The style is not the purpose of what we are doing. It should serve the music and expression, because the final destination should always be music.

The Jury has made some choices. Are these choices the same as yours?

The Jury is democratic. Every pianist has its own judgment, so the final results will never be exactly the same as yours. I know from my own experience that if you compare your own voting with the final verdict and it classifies within the 70% of your choice, then you can be satisfied.  In the "yes" and "no" category my own category "maybe" is what really gives me a headache. Maybe yes or maybe no. But you are looking for someone who really is a top player. When you cannot classify a pianist, it is a really difficult decision. It is what actually happened 5 years ago to Ingolf Wunder. Unfortunately, I was in the minority who voted for him and I was so sure that he could pass to the final, but it didn't happen.

Do you think that celebration of the Chopin’s year may make the piano instrument more popular, in a sense that for example parents will choose piano for the instruction instrument for their children?

Of course, it makes Chopin’s music more visible. Especially when it comes to the Chopin Competition, the public is more exposed to the music in a very positive way.

How do you like Warsaw?

Warsaw is changing very much. Thirty years ago I came like a jungle boy, because I was from Vietnam and even before the Competition I have lived in the mountains. My life has totally changed. I could only speak Russian at that time, but because it was politically tense period with the Solidarity Movement  when the Competition was held in October, Russian was not a pleasant language to hear, so I didn’t speak any word. In 1980s Poland was a very poor country. I was a witness to the changes that has happened in the country since then. It has both good and bad sides. When Poland was a poor country, the audience of the Competition was really the one that loved Chopin’s music and wanted to listen to him even if there were no seats. Now, you can see how the audience has changed, tickets are extremely expensive so the only people at the audience are mostly those who can afford it. I feel sorry for those who can only listen to the Chopin Competition through the radio.

Thank you for the conversation.

Warsaw Philharmonic, October 19, 2010. The interview conducted by Katarzyna Hosaniak, Chopin Year 2010 Celebrations Office.