Thursday, February 28, 2013

Personal Recollections of Van Cliburn

Years ago, never mind how many, I was a voice student at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.  This was way before the NCAA "Death Penalty" for their football program.  Anyhow, my voice teacher asked me if I had plans that evening.  Van Cliburn was coming to SMU to perform with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.  She had a ticket that she could not use and wondered if I would like to go.

Thanking her profusely, I grabbed the ticket, half afraid she'd change her mind...

I went to the concert.  The orchestra played during the first act.  Then after intermission, Van Cliburn joined them.

The audience had been rude prior to the intermission.  Many of them were late in coming, apparently not wanting to hear the symphony without the evening's soloist.  They made noise as they entered, talked over the music, laughed, greeted friends in the audience, and rattled their programs.

The orchestra was playing "The Rites of Spring" by Stravinsky, which if you ever saw Disney's "Fantasia" was what played during the death of the dinosaurs segment.  In other words, in places, it is a loud piece of music with throbbing drums.  I could hear the audience members over the music.  Like I said, they were rude and dismissive of the talented musicians.

After intermission, a red-headed tall "drink o' water" walked to the piano to thunderous applause.  Mr. Cliburn had arrived.  Then an amazing transformation came over the crowd.  They sat rapt and silent, all eyes on the man at the Steinway.

He played brilliantly, nimbly through a difficult program, and came back through NINE encores.  Before or since I've never seen any musician come back for that many encores.  He looked exhausted at the end.  I suspect he put his whole heart into the music.  No wonder he was tired.

He had the complete attention of the crowd.  There were no sounds - no auditorium coughing - no shifting uncomfortably in the seats - no whispers - only reverent silence.  And most telling, there was a space of a few seconds before the audience applauded after he finished each piece.  Any performer will tell you that is the sign the audience is transformed, taken to another place by the skill of the artist.

Like the rest of the audience I was transfixed with open-mouthed awe.  I wasn't very sophisticated in those days, hadn't had a lot of life experience.  But I recognized true genius when I saw it.

You've probably read how he won a prestigious piano contest in the Soviet Union, but you may not know how hard that was.  America and the Soviet Union were enemies engaged in a cold war.  We were told that they wanted war.  They were told the same thing about the United States. They were the first to put a satellite in the sky.  It was a big deal for American families to look up at the night sky and see the little point of light travel across the star field.  I remember as a little girl watching it cross the sky.  It was creepy.  You knew your enemies had put it up there and they were probably watching.  (Don't get me started on how they used dogs in their test rockets.  That was the ultimate proof to me that they were mean.)

Van Cliburn won the music competition the year after Sputnik was launched.  I read that Nikita Kruschev, their premier at the time, had to ask the members of their Politburo if the prize could really be awarded to an American.  The general consensus was if Cliburn was truly the best then he should win. 

Kruschev would become famous to Americans by his trip to the US where he addressed the United Nations and proclaimed to the Americans, as he banged his shoe on the podium, "We will bury you."  Given that visit and the Cuban Missile Crisis, sales of fallout shelters in the US rose to an all-time high.

Yet Cliburn continued traveling periodically to Russia.  He won them over with his skill and artistry, winning their biggest prize at a time when Americans were discouraged from traveling over there at all.  He was a kind, warm, funny young man from Kilgore, Texas.  His music crossed all barriers that existed between the US and the USSR.  The soviets loved him.  And so did we.

He was truly an ambassador of good will throughout his life.  His music spoke for him and reached people of all national origins, political affiliations, and dogmas.

He passed away quietly yesterday, surrounded by friends and family.  Van Cliburn touched this world like very few.  Fortunately, he left us the gift of his recorded music.  Check it out sometime.


  1. I will indeed check it out. A wonderful memory you shared, and restores my faith that some languages can cross barriers, whether they have words or not.