Van Cliburn and Me
Yesterday, Van Cliburn, one of the most celebrated concert pianists in history passed away. When I was six years old, I began to take piano lessons. My father, z”l, was insistent that his children be musical, as he was quite the trumpet player, having studied with John Phillip Sousa’s first trumpeter, Frank Simon, at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music just before the outbreak of the Second World War. At the time that I had begun my lessons on our Gulbrandson spinet piano, Van Cliburn had triumphed, winning the 1st Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, then held in Moscow under the Soviet Union. For an exercise in humility, watch the Youtube of his historic performance. He returned to New York to a ticker-tape parade.
One year after his victory, my father enrolled me in the after school program at the St. Louis Conservatory of Music. He had continuously exposed us to classical music and I will never forget when he brought home the RCA recording of Van Cliburn’s performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 performed at Carnegie Hall with Kiril Kondrashin as the conductor. At first, I did not like it all, for I was far more enthralled with the likes of Gershwin and his Concerto in F than with this music that began with such a simple theme and then became increasingly complicated; not enough melody for this nine year old boy, except that ‘boring’ little phrase at the beginning. I truly did not understand it and did not connect to it at all. However, over time, thanks to my father’s incessant behavior of putting the record on for me to listen, nearly every Sunday afternoon, over and over again, I began to understand. Much later on in life, whenever I would go for a run in training for marathons, I would put that record on in my head (the ipod had not yet been invented) and when it finished, I was about 43 minutes always into my run. It was a wonderful way to pass away the time, the adrenalin rushes from the music, the uplifting themes, the demonic aspects, all of it to this day remain forever etched in my consciousness.
As an aside, very early on, any hopes that I had of becoming a concert pianist quickly subsided when I listened to others play; even those of my own age. I did not have even the rudiments of the “gift.” It would take me forever to get the music into my fingers (a phrase used by pianist Sally Pinkus once when I was talking to her about how she memorized these great works). Moreover, I was far too emotional in my playing. Whenever I tried to play at recitals or for anyone, my hands would simply shake uncontrollably; not a good foreshadowing if someone wanted to fulfill the following terrible joke. A man walking in the streets of New York, asks another, “How I get to Carnegie Hall? The man responds, “Practice.” No amount of practice would ever get me to that level. It was true then as it is today for me. However, this never deterred me from listening and being moved by the music.
Later on, while a teenager in Chicago (we had moved), I became a concert pianist aficionado, and overtime I saw the likes of Horowitz (twice), Ashkenazy, Dichter, and others whose names escape me. At Orchestra Hall, there was a Sunday afternoon piano series and I would often take the L Train (the Lake Street L for those from Chicago) down to Michigan Avenue to buy the tickets, often waiting in line.
The true inspiration for all of this, was Van Cliburn. After I had first moved to Oak Park, Illinois, I learned that Van Cliburn was coming to, of all places, Concordia College, a Lutheran College, in River Forest, Illinois. It was about three to four miles from the High School. I was so excited that I called Concordia and spoke to a woman, who was impressed, but told me that tickets would soon be gone. She promised that if I came there, by the end of the day, she would hold a ticket for me. This was in the morning – somehow I had managed in-between classes to use a pay phone and called.
Chicago was then known for its unpredictable weather and on that particular day, there was a terrible snowstorm. Nonetheless, I walked the 3 miles up Lake Street, making a right on Harlem Avenue to Augusta Avenue and then left onto August and into River Forest; another half-mile or so and on the north side of the street was the College. I barely made it in time.
When I arrived, I was drenched in snow and a little cold. The woman and I began to talk about Van Cliburn. I told her of my ‘relationship’ to this artist, and she must have sensed how excited I was to go to this recital. I paid for the ticket and she said for me to wait, that she had to get something. She said, “I want you to have this.” It was a ticket to go backstage for an after concert reception to meet the artist that was obviously for very special people (i.e. big donors and supporters of the College).
The concert was on a weekday evening. My seat was in the center of the balcony. The hall was filled to capacity. I sat back and if memory serves me correctly, he played an entire recital of Chopin. Of course, it was so very moving and ovation after ovation filled the audience at the end of every piece. Even from the nosebleed section where I sat, one could see the very large hands, the thin fingers, and the grace at which he played. I had never seen or even heard anything like that before and perhaps since. There was power to his playing to be sure and a moving gentleness as well; a sight of grace.
However, the most memorable moments for me were yet to come. After the concert, I went backstage and the kind woman, who handled the tickets, introduced me to Van Cliburn. I was a fourteen year-old, awe-struck really, by this person. This man, who had conquered the Soviet Union, bridged the cold-war, had received standing ovations in concerts all over the world, and whose recording of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 I had now committed to memory, was standing right in front of me. What did he do? He graciously extended his hand to shake mine and said, “So very nice to meet you.” When I extended my hand eagerly in response, he took his other hand covered the entirety of my hand easily, as if I was someone he had known before, like an old friend. I still remember it to this day; his warm smile, his graciousness, his gentleness shown to this young boy who had just moved and had very few friends. It was one of those moments in a person’s life you never forget.
I followed his career, his personal triumphs, his retirement, his return to Russia to play and the critics who often said he needed to do less concertizing and more study. However, two things stand out.
First, he was the true “rock star” of that age and introduced many, many people besides me, to the great classics who might never have listened to the likes of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, were it not for him and in my case, a father’s exercise in ‘tyranny’ on a Sunday afternoon.
His gender orientation perhaps today would have been more easily accepted than in his own time. As long as it was kept private, and he was a private man to be sure, he could enjoy the enormous responsibilities that come with such fame, notoriety, as well as the burdens and that come with transcending one’s art and one’s time in history.
As beautiful and as wonderful as his pianism, the touching of the heart, his graciousness and his love for everyone that he encountered were equal to the beauty of his playing. He gave these gifts to the world, and especially to a young, lonely boy, who, years later, still remembers the touch and embrace of his hands; hands that were the conduit to the greatest of composers the world has ever known. His smile and his love for each soul, large or small in stature, is something that I learned on that beautiful night, so long ago. In our tradition, we say “May his Soul be Bound in the Bonds of Eternal Life.” May it be forever so for a man who gave so much to make the world a beautiful place for all.