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The force behind Vietnam's classical music tradition: Madame Thai Thi Lien

The 92-year-old pianist worked with Ho Chi Minh and other musicians to bring classic Western music to the country and keep its conservatory going through war and beyond. The Vietnam National Academy of Music also teaches traditional Vietnamese music.

December 26, 2010|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Reporting from Hanoi —

The classroom at the Vietnam National Academy of Music could be almost any place in the world where piano is taught. The furniture and lighting are institutional. The walls have soundproofing. There is a long table for instructors and a decent grand. Down the hall, though, hangs a wacky photo of Ho Chi Minh in band master whites cheerfully conducting an orchestra.

Seated at the studio's table one day last March was a tiny woman, under 5 feet tall and 92 years old, the matriarch and grande dame of Vietnamese music and a founder of the academy. Next to her were her daughter, the former rector of the academy, and granddaughter, Thu-Nga Dan, who lives in South Pasadena.

I asked Thai Thi Lien if she would play for me. She laughed nervously and apologized that she was under the weather and hadn't practiced for three weeks. She had just returned to Hanoi for an extended visit from Montreal, where she now lives with her son, Dang Thai Son, Vietnam's most celebrated classical musician. In 1980, he was the first Asian to take first place in the prestigious International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition, held every five years in Warsaw.

But she gamely picked up her cane and marched to the piano and began to play Chopin. Her sound is huge, soul-stopping, the kind you might expect from a burly key-crusher trained in Eastern Europe. When a local Vietnamese photographer hired by The Times clicked his camera too close to her face, she imperiously shooed him away like a mosquito.

A few wrong notes couldn't prevent melodies from singing out or hinder the lustrous sheen of her tone. Mainly, though, there was that sound, stirring enough to stop a B-52 bomber. Or attract one, as some North Vietnamese villagers feared it might during what is called here the American War.

After she finished playing, Madame Lien, as she asks to be called, flirtatiously brushed off compliments and began to recount — in a mélange of English, French and Vietnamese — her remarkable story. With a little help from her friends, Ho being one, she played a decisive role in creating a classical music tradition for her country, and her persistence during North Vietnam's wars with the French and Americans helped maintain that tradition.

Thai Thi Lien was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City but still informally called Saigon by most Vietnamese) when it was an exotic French colony. "My father was the first engineer in Vietnam," she said. "He studied in France, and he brought back many recordings of opera. He decided I should learn piano." She was 4, and a few intrepid French piano teachers of varying quality had made their way to Indochina.

She spent her teens studying with a pupil of Chopin and grew into a fine virtuoso. But a career as a concert pianist for a young Vietnamese woman — her granddaughter describes her as having been a great beauty and a free spirit — was unthinkable at the time. Her traditional family arranged a marriage. Madame Lien's hand gesture describing her first husband is the same as the one that dismissed the photographer. Husband No. 1 wasn't in the picture for long.

Although fighting between the French and the Vietnamese had already broken out in 1946, Lien moved to Paris to study, and there she met and married Tran Ngoc Danh, a Communist political operative who was trained in Moscow and whom some historians suspect was a KGB spy, although Madame Lien adamantly denies this. He was part of Ho's delegation that hoped to negotiate independence from the French.

Ho and Tran Ngoc Danh were not successful, so the newlyweds went to Czechoslovakia where Lien enrolled in the Prague Conservatory. When she received her diploma in the early 1950s, she became the first Vietnamese woman to obtain an advanced degree in music.

Much of her time in Prague was spent apart from her husband. Tran Ngoc Danh remained politically active and controversial, working mainly in Bangkok. When Lien did finally join him, he was in the countryside of North Vietnam with Ho and the Viet Minh forces. She made the arduous journey from south China to the Vietnam jungle on foot carrying her 22-month-old daughter.

She remained with the Viet Minh for two years until the French were routed in Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Her first son, Tran Thanh Binh, now one of Vietnam's most prominent architects, was born in that jungle and her husband died in it of tuberculosis.

When Ho took charge of the new country, he asked Lien to record her arrangements of Vietnamese folk songs and lullabies that she had regularly played for him and the troops. Vietnam was a country that had endured centuries of foreign occupation, and Lien's recording was embraced as a national symbol for a people reclaiming their own culture.

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