Bringing Beethoven and Chopin amid bombs to the Vietnamese

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I met Madame Thai Thi Lien, the doyen of Vietnamese music, this year in Hanoi during the Southwest Chamber Music’s cultural exchange held in honor of the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Vietnam’s capital. That Vietnam has a classical music tradition, that students practiced Beethoven and Chopin in underground bunkers while American planes dropped bombs overhead, that the country has a large and vibrant music conservatory are all thanks in no small part to Madame Lien.

To hear her play Chopin at age 92 is to witness a force of nature. She was close to Ho Chi Minh and helped him build the modern nation of Vietnam and inspire its people. Besides that, she is the mother of three who have all played a major role in the country’s musical culture.

In 1980, her youngest, Dang Thai Son, became the first Asian to take the Gold Medal at the Chopin Piano Competition. He beat out the flamboyant 17-year-old Ivo Pogorelich, who was eliminated in the third round. The cranky Croatian went on to become a star out-shadowing Dang Thai Son at first, but Pogorelich ultimately proved too eccentric to sustain a great career, whereas the Dang Thai Son quietly yet persuasively grew into one of the world’s most eloquent Chopin interpreters.

Madame Lien’s other children are another pianist who went on to head the Vietnam National Academy of Music and a leading Vietnamese architect and cellist who has designed a major new concert hall for Hanoi currently under construction.


America and the West learned the hard way not to underestimate Vietnam. Had we paid as much attention to piano theory as we did to the domino theory might we have avoided war? For the rest of Madame Lien’s extraordinary story, look here.

-- Mark Swed


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