COVER STORY : Finally, a Return Engagement : Pianist Van Cliburn is hitting the concert trail, with his first stop at the Hollywood Bowl in 18 years. He’s come a long way from the child prodigy who wowed the world

<i> Greta Beigel is a Times staff writer</i>

“I don’t like to practice, never have,” Van Cliburn is saying in an interview. “But when I do get started at the piano, for the first 10 minutes I play scales, slowly. I’ve done this all my life.”

As if to stress the importance of this regimen, Cliburn, arguably the most celebrated American pianist of his time, proceeds to demonstrate how scales should be played.

“Listen to the sounds you make,” he instructs a visitor. “The sound of each tone will generate a response in you. It will give you energy.” Then, drawing himself to his full 6-foot-4 height, he looks down and admonishes, “We both know you’ll practice tonight, right?”


Practicing scales, and thirds and sixths and even 10ths, helped Cliburn maintain his technical mastery during a self-imposed exile from the concert platform that began in 1978 and ended nine years later when he accepted an invitation from President Reagan to perform at the White House.

“I didn’t abandon the piano,” he says of his much-publicized hiatus. “The piano was always there.”

And so he played chamber music and pieces close to his heart, such as the Schubert sonatas, and went to the opera and hosted musical soirees for friends. It all has given the former child prodigy, who is about to turn 60, a much-needed perspective on life and recharged his energies to the point where he is ready to hit the road extensively for the first time in 16 years.

Cliburn opens a 16-city, six-week concert tour with the Moscow Philharmonic on Saturday at San Diego’s Summer Pops Bowl and on July 11 visits the Hollywood Bowl, where he last appeared in 1976. Under Vassily Sinaisky, he’ll perform Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto and the Tchaikovsky First, vehicles that propelled him to triumph--and instant stardom--at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow.

“I had been playing concerts since 1987 but not on a large scale or on a schedule,” Cliburn explains. “Then everything just fell into my lap. The Moscow Philharmonic (the orchestra had accompanied Cliburn in the finals of the Tchaikovsky) contacted me and said they had this time open. Also, Mr. Sinaisky, who was an assistant to (the late) Kiril Kondrashin, is a wonderful conductor and a great musical personality. Everything fell into place.”

On a visit to Los Angeles to promote the tour, Cliburn, slender and refined in a dark blue suit and red tie, meets with members of the media at a Beverly Hills hotel. He is surrounded by all sorts of managers, publicists, friends and agents, who graciously depart, one by one, when a private audience is requested.


Unfailingly courteous, Cliburn, hands clasped, dutifully answers questions, at times almost by rote. But he positively leaps to life when discussing things pianistic.

“Isn’t playing the piano an interesting vocation,” he muses.

But he fast becomes irritated when asked if his Tchaikovsky Concerto, played thousands of times in concert, and captured on an RCA Victor recording that has sold more than 3 million units, will reveal new insights in 1994?

“No, no, you don’t do that,” he says. “You carry with you all your experiences on stage and you build on that. Each performance is a rehearsal for the next one. Whatever I play in public I like, and if I learn something, it’s not to play for this week or that week, but forever.”

The impatience persists when it’s suggested to Cliburn that perhaps the adulation that greeted his every move in the 1960s and 1970s, when he performed more than 100 concerts a year, had stymied his growth as an artist and led to his early withdrawal from the concert stage.

“That had nothing to do with it,” he says. “Adulation is not a problem. It was a conscious thing for me to stop. I decided four years ahead. But you have to look back to where I came from. I grew up in a town (Kilgore, Tex.) with a population of 6,283, or whatever the roadside sign said. Everybody knew everybody. At 12, I played with the Houston Symphony and played here and there and people would come from all over to hear me. People were always a part of my life. I simply was selfish and wanted time for myself.

“I think people are just waking up to the fact that for Van Cliburn being on stage was not his raison d’etre. I love being at home and am a contented person. I love mundane things. I love family. My only regret is that I wish I could have had children and had a lovely wife. But it didn’t happen. I feel if you have a child it is a tremendous responsibility, but it would have been fun. It would have been an important facet of life.”


Clearly, the biggest influence in Cliburn’s life remains his beloved 97-year-old mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, who was his teacher until he was 17 and who shares his vast home in Ft. Worth. On the day after his Bowl performance, Cliburn will fly there to join her in his birthday celebration.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he says. “She is so sweet and vivacious and I just love her.

“But it seems impossible that I’m turning 60. I still feel as if I’m in my 20s, and feel younger than I did then. But then you look in the mirror . . . “

Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. was born in Shreveport, La., the son of an oil man and his pianist wife. At age 3, the precocious child climbed on a piano stool and from that day forth completed daily lessons with his mother, herself a pupil of Arthur Friedheim. The St. Petersburg-born Friedheim had studied with Anton Rubinstein and Franz Liszt before coming to New York in 1915.

With his mother at his side, the boy learned all the Chopin Etudes, the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt, as well as the Bach Inventions and Preludes and Fugues, which he played in public at age 4. At the keyboard, he also learned arithmetic and how to read.

“My mother used to say, ‘Van, remember I’m not your mother, I’m your teacher,’ ” he says. “She was my biological mother, but in the final analysis was really a very dear friend.


“She was a master psychologist and was so spiritual, and gave me strength for all of my life. And my father? You cannot imagine what a loving, heartwarming man he was. He adored my mother and loved me and I loved him so much. The last thing he said to me before he died (in 1974) was ‘Sonny Boy’--he called me that, you know--’I love you and look after your mother.’ That gave me a lot of strength. They made me. I would have been nothing without them.”

Cliburn’s mother, wanting her teen-age son to be versed in the Russian way of playing, with its technical brilliance and emphasis on Romantic expression, determined that he should study with famed pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School.

“She (Lhevinne) was great friends with mother and told her that I had the foundation already,” Cliburn says. “Mother would call her if ever she had a good student and she would take them without audition.”

Juilliard faculty member Martin Canin, a fellow student who become Lhevinne’s assistant for 18 years prior to her death in 1976, says Cliburn clearly stood out in the class of 1954, along with talented John Browning. Although somewhat eclipsed by Cliburn’s subsequent success, Browning, now 61, is enjoying a resurgence in his career.

“They had a certain poetry and a romantic something or other,” Canin recalls. “Van was hugely gifted. He had a beautiful sound and phenomenal technique and charisma.”

Lhevinne was instrumental along with then-Juilliard dean Mark Schubart in persuading a skeptical Cliburn, 23, to enter the quadrennial Tchaikovsky competition.


“Cliburn was initially reluctant because he was under management (Columbia Artists) and had had some modest success,” says Schubart, who now directs the Lincoln Center Institute.

“You have to remember the political climate at the time. We were in the middle of the Cold War and the feeling was that in every musical competition the Russians always won. They were represented by professionals who had been carefully trained, whereas those from the States were always students with little professional experience.

“I always thought Van had a good chance of winning because he was extraordinary, but nobody could have foreseen the international impact of his winning, the publicity and all that happened as a result.”

Asked about those heady days in Moscow, when he created a furor among hysterical, flower-throwing throngs, and in New York, where an unprecedented ticker-tape parade greeted his return, Cliburn simply responds, “I was unconscious throughout.”

He seems more concerned, even anxious, that his earlier successes be noted: How at age 18 he won the G. B. Dealey Memorial Award, a national competition in Dallas, followed a few months later by the Kosciusko Foundation’s Chopin Scholarship Award and then the Olga Samaroff Grant.

In 1954, he received the important Leventritt Award, and a few months later made his debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall under the late Dimitri Mitropoulos. The conductor went on to help Cliburn prepare for the Moscow contest, persuading him to play a Taneyev Prelude and Fugue as opposed to selections by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.


“Taneyev was a very revered composition teacher of the Moscow Conservatory,” Cliburn explains. “The piece is terribly difficult, but is very treasured piece among academicians. Metropolis knew this, and he even got the music for me. I was only one of three people who did it and was very glad I did.”

Also of considerable joy to Cliburn was his association with the late Bruno Walter, a spiritual man with whom he not only collaborated as soloist--Cliburn was at the keyboard at Walter’s final appearance on Dec. 4, 1960, at the Hollywood Bowl--but with whom he also studied conducting.

“It was so inspiring to be around him,” Cliburn says. “I did 27 concerts as a conductor. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, my record company (RCA) bought some films and one is of conducting and I played and conducted the Prokofiev Third (in Moscow). But I gave it up.”

Following his return from Russia in 1958, Cliburn received a hero’s welcome in his home state of Texas, where a piano competition was inaugurated in his honor in Ft. Worth in 1962. The Van Cliburn International today ranks as one of the most prestigious and controversial battlegrounds in the pianistic world, with a top prize exceeding $200,000 in cash, plus concert engagements and management services. Although he has no voting rights, Cliburn remains a strong presence at the quadrennial event.

The competition has served yet another purpose over the years: keeping Cliburn’s name alive and before the public.

Also fostering the Cliburn myth are numerous press accounts of his iconoclastic lifestyle that supposedly involves midnight suppers, all-night musical happenings at his three-story home, 5 a.m. breakfasts, 4 p.m. wake-up calls.


Are the stories true? Does Cliburn stay up all night and sleep all day?

“Naah, we do that occasionally,” he replies. “We watch films, and play opera, and listen to recordings of Tebaldi and Price and, oh, that wonderful soprano, Cecelia Bartoli.

“I can work and operate well in the daytime, but I love the night when I have to work. The daytime is OK to practice fundamentals, but when having to seriously study something, between the hours of 11 and 2 a.m. are absolutely fabulous. I get clarity and there are no calls and no distractions.”

In December, 1987, Cliburn emerged from his sabbatical to perform at a White House dinner honoring Mikhail Gorbachev and later at the opening of the Bob Hope Cultural Center in Palm Springs. Limited engagements followed with the Dallas Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra before Cliburn returned in 1989 to the scene of his original triumph: the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, where he performed the Liszt Concerto No. 1--and the Tchaikovsky.

Earlier this year, Cliburn and associates began planning his cross-country comeback tour. As a warm-up, Cliburn in recent months has played the Tchaikovsky with the Houston Symphony and then the Grant Park Symphony, under Leonard Slatkin.

Of his June 18 performance at Grant Park Music Festival, the Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein notes, “The lanky Texas pianist proved that whatever problems had forced his withdrawal from the concert stage two decades into his career, he was well-prepared to compete with the Van Cliburn who once so captured the American imagination.”

While lauding Cliburn’s “colossal technique” and characteristic “devil-may-care panache,” Von Rhein speculated that the enormous pressure inherent in Cliburn’s comeback may have “accounted for some self-conscious touches, as well as moments of uncertain coordination” with Slatkin and the orchestra.


The tour is budgeted at $4 million. Cliburn receives $125,000 per concert; the 115-member orchestral contingent $75,000, plus expenses. To attract as large an audience as possible, outdoor venues have been booked, save for indoor dates in St. Louis, Detroit, Salt Lake City and New York.

Cliburn admits being nervous about his upcoming appearances.

“I have been nervous ever since I first played in public before I was 4,” he says. “It’s the same sensation. You want to play well, wish to serve and are always concerned.”

To cash in on Cliburn’s return to the concert arena, RCA Victor has reissued on its “Living Stereo” line a CD of Cliburn performing Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Second, with the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner. Similar plans are in place for his Schumann Concerto and the Prokofiev Third.

On a recent promotional blitz to plug the CD, Cliburn, to his amazement, was mobbed by young fans at record stores seeking his autograph.

“I couldn’t get over it,” Cliburn says. “Newspapers and a police report said 2,000 people showed up at a mall in Minnesota. It was the same thing in Boston and San Francisco. It’s happening everywhere.”

Does Cliburn revel in being a superstar?

“No, because when I’m in my little room at home and I feel all alone, I think, I wonder if anyone remembers me.”


To reserve his place in the pantheon of pianistic history, Cliburn often toys with writing his memoirs, but fears he’d grow bored writing what would be his third biography. His life has been examined in print by Abram Chasins in “The Van Cliburn Legend” (1959), and in exhaustive, almost-Pollyannaish detail by Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich in the 1993 “Van Cliburn” (Thomas Nelson).

Cliburn, a strong advocate for the study of music in schools, would prefer to document his ideas on education, and “write about the interesting ideas and feelings” he has about music and life in general.

“I have been around this earth long enough to have seen something. And maybe by having seen something, there is something I can say,” Cliburn reminds.

“My life is bigger than the keyboard, and my world is bigger than the stage. When I was 18 I told someone that I had a feeling that the first part of my life I would work very hard and then have time for myself and a long vacation. It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

* Van Cliburn performs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at San Diego’s Summer Pops Bowl at Embarcadero Marina Park South; $23.50-$150; (619) 699-4205. On July 11, he appears at 8:30 p.m. at the Hollywood Bowl; $10-$250; (213) 850-2000.