Remembering Van Cliburn
Date posted: 28 Feb 2013
In the 1960s Van Cliburn’s music making and his status as a musical ambassador in the depths of the Cold War opened new worlds of understanding to my teenage, budding love of classical music. At age thirteen I started to work as a part-time salesman for Ann Arbor Michigan’s Liberty Music Shop. Cliburn was then at the zenith of his career. His newest recordings were eagerly anticipated and his television appearances, while not rivaling the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show were must see events.
It was his piano sound, along with Horowitz and Rubinstein that formed my personal world-view of grand, Romantic pianism. Oddly, I did not hear Cliburn, the youngest of these three idols ‘live’ until 1989 At The Mann Center in Philadelphia, long after I’d been fortunate enough to hear both Rubinstein and Horowitz at close range at home. No matter, even in late middle age, that roar of sound Cliburn produced at the keyboard was still electric.
Thousands of living musicians and music lovers will be posting recollections and reminiscences of Cliburn the artist and Cliburn the man. I offer just a couple of vignettes dating from the year I finally met him, in the spring of 1989, at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. I had been chosen to produce a multi-part national radio series about the Competition. WFMT, Chicago sent me there to collect interviews, broadcast the finals concert ‘live’ and begin preparing a series of programs that would examine piano repertoire and pianism through the prism of the Competition, its performers and performances.
Fort Worth, Texas, home to Van Cliburn and the Competition goes piano mad in those quadrennial weeks. Where else can you go into a simple coffee shop at 8AM (before the ubiquity of Starbucks) and hear piano music playing the background. When I complimented the cashier (who looked a bit like my Aunt Fran) on having classical music playing, she replied: “Oh The Wanderer Fantasy? We’ve got the Arrau recording here but I prefer Kempff!!” You get an idea of the depth of love of this instrument and its music that Van Cliburn imparted to the town he called home for so many decades.
Part of my assignment that spring was to interview the man himself. It wasn’t easy. Cliburn wasn’t exactly coy, but he was hard to pin down. Four or five dates were set and cancelled. Finally, word came from Richard Rodzinski, the long-time and infinitely patient Director of the Competition in those years that Van Cliburn would see me the next evening at 1AM at his home! Cliburn was a night-owl and also preferred interviews on home turf.
Not knowing what to expect I arrived promptly at 1. A small party was in full swing, subdued, but still a party. Van was entertaining three or four friends and his mother, the formidable Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, then a spry ninety-three. I was invited to come into the spacious kitchen, large enough to cater a party for 100. There, at a commodious table groaning with food Rildia Bea sat at the one end, Van at the other and the rest of us gathered around the table as courtiers.
Fifteen minutes into this gathering I realized the real interview was happening right there. Van and his mother traded stories going back to his boyhood. At one point when Van was regaling us with a humorous incident in Russia, Rildia Bea, who seemed to have nodded off at her end of the table instantly corrected her son on a precise date-something that had happened thirty years prior!
Eventually, Van got comfortable enough with my presence to suggest we go into the ‘drawing room’ and conduct the recorded interview. Over the next hour, slowly but surely, the platitudes fell away and while Van never completely let his guard down, the excessive formality and politesse that clouded so many of his other interviews relaxed. I don’t think I came away with any real revelations into his artistic persona or his private life, but I did leave that morning (at 3:30!) with a deep appreciation of how difficult it must be to have been in the public spotlight relentlessly for so long. A certain cautiousness, a polite wariness creeps into your public utterances.
First and foremost I was reminded that Van Cliburn was a man of the South, with everything that implies. Polite to a fault, gracious to one and all, and private. But once in a while in that interview I got a glimpse of the passion for music that drove him to work so hard in his youth to achieve that sound, that musical drive and above all that poetic utterance that seemed to be his alone in many generations of American pianists before and since.
Finally, later in the summer of 1989 at the Mann Center in Philadelphia I got to see and hear what it was all about, something I had only been able to intuit from countless hours of listening to his recordings. Van, like so many artists of his generation was a personal friend of the charismatic Freddy Mann, the Philadelphia impresario whose name was memorialized on a splendid concert pavilion in West Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, one of the summer homes of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Van’s connections to the Mann and to the Philadelphians ran deep. He performed and recorded with Eugene Ormandy and was a regular presence at first at the Robin Hood Dell and after 1976 (he played in the inaugural season) at The Mann many summers from the beginning of his career.
I stood in the wings (there was not seat to be had in the 4,000 seat pavilion) but it was no hardship, because I could watch Cliburn play from a great vantage point. If there was a ‘secret’ to his playing it was a concentration of power whose focal point was his fingers. Cliburn was not all that demonstrative at the keyboard. Not unlike Horowitz, he squared his shoulders and created a flow of energy using his whole torso as the piston that drove his fingers.
It was not a note-perfect performance, but that did not matter. Some musicians have an aura about them. They seem to be able to connect to what they are playing or singing or conducting in a way that permits them to seem at once larger than life and nearly invisible. The sound, the contours of their interpretations seem inevitable just as the music of Bach seems inevitable-what you are hearing is exactly the way it should be heard in an ideal world. I know that sounds a bit wooly because it is difficult to put the aura certain artists create into words. ‘Presence’ doesn’t do it justice. ‘Charisma’ is over-used. To the best my ability the word I prefer is ‘channel.’ Those rare gifted artists apply all their skill to making themselves the most potent intermediary between the composer and the listener. Cliburn, at his best, had this. Effortless technique, a depth of sonority and a gift for making that percussive instrument called the piano sing like the opera divas he so loved.
He is gone but lucky are we to have the recordings of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin and so much more to treasure for as long as recorded sound can be shared. I don’t know if he was ever truly happy with his work. I am reminded of a portion of a letter from Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille. To me it sums up the questing soul of any great artist. It seems to fit my lasting impression of Van Cliburn:
“There is a vitality,
a life force,
that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time,
this expression is unique.
And If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine
how good it is
nor how valuable it is
nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly
to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.
Keep the channel open...
No artist is pleased...
There is no satisfaction whatever at anytime
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes "us" MORE alive than the others”.