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Pianist Welcomes Us Into His Salon

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Vietnamese-born pianist Dang Thai Son, winner of the 1980 International Chopin Competition, returned to Jordan Hall Saturday night for his 6th performance in Boston sponsored by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts. A selection of five Debussy Preludes and one of Schubert’s incomplete sonatas preceded a rarely performed combination of mostly early and nationalistic works of Chopin in an unusual salon-style concert well suited to the artist.

Thai Son imparted comfort, a little humor, and a bit of bravado (quick scratching of the chin or upper lip required perfect timing, between quickly executed passages in the right hand). He demonstrated extraordinary control of sound, keyboard, and pedaling. His exquisite music-making also observed fidelity to all three composers.

Given his demeanor, projection, and temperament, Thai Son might as well have walked out in pajamas. I don’t think it would have made any difference to him or the audience. That’s what it felt like: oddly endearing and a little unusual. Yellow pajamas with brown toy bears, in bow ties, to add some formality; that’s what I would recommend for future performances.

Debussy’s Brouillards (Mist) was just that. Generous pedaling and a super light touch, floating over the keyboard, rendered delicate murkiness, with brilliant touches in the right-hand flourishes, and an astonishing evenness to his atmospheric chordal playing. With La Puerta del Vino (The wine gate), Thai Son brought his playing down from the clouds to below the waist. Lusty and gutsy stuff, with an alternatingly aggressive and hypnotic habanero rhythmic bass, and bright, sonic and visual strumming flourishes in Thai Son’s dancing right hand. La Danse de Puck (Puck’s Dance) sounded brisk, colorful, and witty, both Debussy and Thai Son allowing only a whiff of sentimental nostalgia before turning it off. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air) had more of an air of lightness and ease than mysteriousness, with more of Thai Son’s generous pedaling.

Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) went fast to the point of being out of control, at times rushed. I would have preferred less pedaling, more brightness and brilliance of sound. A tiny lapse in concentration near the end proved to be justified. A string had broken in the upper register, we learned, after the fact. The piece, and (sub)set of Préludes gave the overall impression of being tossed off. But with ease, and with such wonderful control and projection of Debussy-sound.

Schubert’s incomplete Sonata in C Major “Reliquie”, D. 840, with its hugely scaled 1st and 2nd movements, made it the most large-scale structure for the evening, whether or not it has the most specific gravity. Thai Son’s Schubert provided all one might expect, with expansiveness (almost stretchy rubato), real drama and intensity in the development section, fine resolution, and Thai Son’s lovely control of sound. Schubert quickly introduces a rhythmic figuration in the left hand that serves to bind the work, giving it a hypnotic pulse and a contrast to the squarer Schubertian ideas that spin forth from the opening. The second movement had ‘pulse,’ too, and more contrast of mood, up to the wonderfully wrought ending that doesn’t want to end. Throughout the movement, silence reigns as potent as sound, but especially at the end.

The crowd clearly anticipated the all-Chopin second half, though some of the early works are seldom heard. Not a lot of Chopin-drama in this kind of set. Rather, Thai Son built a Chopin cornucopia around the composer’s stylized dance forms.

The three extremely short Écossaises, op. Posth. 72, no. 3-5, a “nod to the Scottish Contradanse” (according to Janni Lo Burdeti in her fine program notes), were over before they started, but still enough time for Chopin remained, as Thai Son, made us summon our inner ballerinas, while we remained still and seated. Thai Son’s fingers looked like tiny ballerinas, too, pirouetting across the keyboard, so often perched nearly 90-degreees on fingertip, especially during trills. How does he do that? The 3rd of the three Écossaises made for a total hoot, a sonic palate cleanser. Thai Son delivered on these tiny dances, clearing the air, and dance floor, for more Chopin to follow.

Three waltzes came next. The E Major, op. posthumous brought a little wistful melancholy.  Son gave superb voicing to the Waltz in A Minor, op. 34, no. 2—a droningly mournful yet pleadingly songful and liquid marvel, brimming with rubato.

Third in his grouping came the one Chopin enjoyed performing most (according to biographer Jim Samson), the Waltz in A-flat Major, op. 42, a world apart from the a minor, but equal in its originality, musicality and distillation of musical ideas. Thai Son’s opening trill constituted a dance itself, introducing all the dancing to follow. Swirling notes, a hemiola melody two against three, with triplets buzzing like bees, set an exchange of tone and moods: from a more subdued ‘let’s get acquainted’ waltz to an exhilarating display of virtuoso cascades of brilliant sound up and down the keyboard—dancers joyfully careening off the walls—back and forth, with a more intimate middle section, then more dancing. Thai Son figuratively danced in his zone, enjoying his playing as much as we were.

I heard two equally astonishing (but each so personalized and different) performances of this work within the same number of weeks. The other artist shall remain unnamed, but he was in the audience this night. I wonder what he thought of this performance.

Chopin’s influence for his Bolero, op. 19 a traditional Spanish Dance, is unclear, but, like most of the folk and national influences in his music, whether Polish, French, Scottish, or from elsewhere, what he absorbed what he heard and reconstituted into his own idiosyncratic style of composition. In any case, the Bolero sounds like a strange early Polonaise, with much of the early-Chopin crisp, bright figuration in the right hand, producing Chopin sounds so idiomatic to the piano that no other composer has even come close to replicating them. Thai Son could have played it in his sleep, or in his pajamas.

The set of four little Mazurkas, op. 24 formed the hidden centerpiece of the program. Each were exquisite, but especially the 4th in B-flat Minor. Thai Son taps into the Chopin vein in ways that few do, producing balanced harmonies, dancing dissonances, and soaring melodies, but more importantly, strangely satisfying intangibles, intertwined over time as a matter of course… pain, passion, tenderness, unrequited love, loneliness, isolation, resignation and acceptance, the works. Nothing eccentric to his music-making. Not too much; not overworked. Just so. Life wrapped up in a Mazurka.

His Rondo à la Mazur delighted us, and constituted discovery for me. The near-corny mazurka theme that frames the work, and reappears several times, travels east, finds more modal inflection, goes minor and adopts wonderful augmented 2nd  Slavic inflections, then visits the (piano) circus to pickup pyrotechnics and trapeze skills, before transforming itself into a gorgeous simple 2nd theme. I’m such a sucker for a circle of 5ths. Chopin must have had a major crush on someone when he wrote this. Fine work of all this from Thai Son.

What a rich, grand sound Thai Son summoned for the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, op. 44! Rubinstein would have been envious, had he been there to witness. What has become such a clichéd theme sounded so fresh and spontaneous, and heroic. If the decibel level of the left hand octaves in the middle section of the Polonaise had been measured, I bet the increase would have been on a perfect slope, then an arc, upward, to the end of the middle section, from 40db to 130db, all while the right hand maintained a separate balance and increase, proportionally as required to execute the perfect Polonaise. Wow! A great way to finish the program.

After the heroics, Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk made for a perfect, lighter encore.

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

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