Van Cliburn – A Hero For Another Time

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

     When Van Cliburn left this planet today, he left a much-different world than the one in which he shot to fame some 55 long years ago.

There was a Cold War going on, Sputnik had been launched, and America needed a lift. The country was ready for someone, anyone, who could wrestle the Russian bear to the ground in one field or another.  Not only that, classical music had a more prominent place in the mass culture than it does now.  TIME Magazine regularly covered classical music news, even featured record reviews on a weekly basis. Ed Sullivan booked classical artists side-by-side with circus performers, easy-listening crooners and Elvis Presley. A piano was still a required purchase for many a suburban family, along with piano lessons. These conditions don’t exist anymore – and popular culture has become so fractured, money-driven and narrow-cast that it’s hard to conceive of a classical music figure becoming that famous these days.  Not even Placido Domingo, Lang Lang or Gustavo Dudamel have that kind of universal name recognition.

So this 23-year-old, wavy-haired pianist from Texas was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time when he won the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition with the approval of Khrushchev himself. He became a rock star before they invented the term. In the long run, it probably hurt him; trapped inside the expectations of playing big Romantic Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff vehicles forever and ever, he couldn’t grow as an interpreter or programmer. But he was no doubt comfortable in semi-retirement, what with all his investments in play.  I should know because Van Cliburn was my landlord once;  one of my former apartments in Encino had the name Harvey Van Cliburn listed as the owner!

I only saw the Van perform twice – once when I was a kid when he subbed for an indisposed pianist at Hollywood Bowl with, I think, Eugene Ormandy conducting, and the second time many, many years later in 1994 when he was attempting a huge comeback tour after a 16-year layoff from touring, also at the Bowl. That was a disaster in the making, for Cliburn had planned to play not one, but two blockbuster concertos on one program, the Tchaikovsky 1 and Rachmaninoff 3, along with narrating Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait and playing the National Anthem!  He only made it through the anthem, Copland and Tchaikovsky before disappearing mysteriously for nearly an hour as everyone waited. Finally he came out, admitted that he felt “light-headed” and had a dizzy spell – and with the imported Moscow Philharmonic looking on incredulously, he played some brief solo encores.

Earlier that spring, Cliburn came to the Bowl press conference announcing the concert, and he was eloquent in speech with the poise of a diplomat – and very gracious when I approached him one-on-one with a couple of questions (fortunately, I had long since vacated that apartment, so I kept rent-control out of the discussion!). That’s the Van Cliburn I remember the most vividly – a gentleman of another time who still radiated quiet, dignified star power.