“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Monday, April 15, 2013

Van Cliburn: An Appreciation

Imagine, if you can, the thrill of a sixteen-year-old piano student hearing that an American pianist had won the first International Tchaikovsky competition, defeating the Russians—the world—on the Russians' home turf and in their own repertoire. The ticker-tape parade, the magazine covers with glowing articles and reviews, the speeches—"now that I've been a sensation, I hope to be a success"—all the hype for this remarkable pianist set fire to my own imagination. Imagine, too, what it was like that summer of 1959 when the announcement came that Cliburn would play at the Hollywood Bowl in my own backyard with Kiril Kondrashin, his Russian conductor from the competition, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. My mother surprised me with tickets for the concert, which was so unlike her. 

When we arrived at the Bowl, the crowds added another level to the excitement—all these people sharing the same thrill of discovery, all of us a part of something important. I hadn't even thought to look up the program details. It turned out to be all Tchaikovsky, including the concerto, which, believe it or not, apart form the opening bars used as the motto for KFAC's Evening Concert on our local classical station, I had never heard.

On the way up the long winding ramp to the entrance gates, my mother and I noticed groups of people gathered in clumps, holding programs, coffees, snacks, gesturing, all chatting excitedly, I imagined, about the event before us. Just then Myrna Loy, Hollywood movie star from the thirties—Nora Charles herself, of the Thin Man movies—walked directly toward us. Asta, the little dog from the films, wasn't with her. I think, looking back, that this was the biggest thrill of the evening for my mother, who was not very interested in music.

I was mesmerized by the music, the performance, the glamour of it all. The concerto thrilled me to the core. The audience become wild at the end, a spectacle I'd never before witnessed, which would have been frightening in other circumstances. For an encore, they played the first movement of the Rachmaninoff third concerto, which I'd also never heard and it left me speechless.

Fast forward now to the mid 1970's, New York City, where I was busily chasing down a career as a collaborative pianist. One of my sopranos, who happened to work in the offices at RCA, invited me to lunch. We would meet at her building. She had a surprise for me. There was Mr. Cliburn, tall, rather elegant looking, and all smiles, putting me instantly at ease. He was at RCA, reportedly, to claim another advance on his recording royalties, which I imagine were considerable. We met, shook hands—his enormous hand enveloped mine completely—and posed for a photo. When I find that photo, I'll post it here. That brief meeting felt like a cap to a particular chapter in my musical development. By that time, of course, I had had many more experiences, heard much more music and many more pianists. But the Cliburn experience was singular for me and I have to say, and I don't think this is just nostalgia speaking, his live Carnegie Hall recordings with Kondrashin from 1958 of the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff third concertos are still my favorite performances of those works.

I was deeply saddened on hearing of the death of this great musical ambassador.

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