Van Cliburn was a pianist, of course. He will be remembered for that big technique, big physique and big Texan heart, all of which contributed to making him such a sensation when he played. But Cliburn, who died Wednesday at 78, may be remembered most for being a phenomenon.
He was the right young Texan with the right big technique at the right time to make music and cultural history.
To the Russians, whom he wowed in 1958 in his famous win in the first Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, Cliburn was exotic. He was not an American Cold War warrior but a gracious, gangling 23-year-old who showed that Russian culture had penetrated deep into the American backwoods of Kilgore, Texas. He was straightforward, a pianist who took music at its outgoing face value.
Tchaikovsky sounded terrific, it turned out, with a Texas accent.
Cliburn was equally non-threatening in his own country. He was easily recognizable as an all-American star. He had the quality of a great athlete, from his physical capacity to his good looks. He also had good manners. He seemed made for the ticker-tape parades, for appearing at the Kremlin, at the White House, on TV or at the Hollywood Bowl.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic snapped up Cliburn for the summer of 1958, while the public was in thrall to his massive celebrity. He was the first American classical musician to fill the Bowl on two consecutive evenings. He played Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, a work now in the fingers of hundreds of pianists but then still thought to be beyond just about anyone other than the incredible Vladimir Horowitz or the composer himself. The reviews report that Cliburn dazzled.
He appeared again at the Bowl the following summer to play concertos for two benefit concerts aimed to help raise money to build the Los Angeles Music Center. Cliburn was more popular than ever. He dazzled again and filled the coffers. He could make his audiences believe that anything was possible, and thanks to him, Angelenos began to believe that a Music Center might really be possible.
Badgered by Dorothy Chandler, who was the tireless fundraiser for the Music Center and then the head of the L.A. Philharmonic, Cliburn, besides donating his services for the fundraisers, sent a sizable check as his own contribution to the hall. He gave a recital in the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as part of the new hall’s dedication week in 1964 and returned there other times over the years.
This was, no doubt, a sign of his generosity. But the incident may also have presaged something else in Cliburn’s makeup. He had several very good years as a pianist, but he burned out, never really growing into a mature artist. He appears to have tried too hard to please, to live up to what had become the impossible expectations. By the time I first heard him live in the late ‘70s, he appeared tired, acted nervously and played mechanically.
Soon after that he took a nine-year break from performing. When he returned to the stage, he was a flawed pianist who tried to recapture the old flair. But the freshness was gone, and that wasn’t replaced by a new depth of expression.
In fact, Cliburn was, rather than a regular guy, an eccentric who kept nocturnal hours, entertaining in the wee hours of the night. The few times I met him, he couldn’t have been nicer, but he seemed a shell of his old self, someone who was still haunted by the hype.
But he found personal and positive ways of compensating. He founded the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth. Thanks to Cliburn, pianists Radu Lupu, Cristina Ortiz, Jon Nakamatsu and many others got their start. Cliburn also fostered the ambitions of amateurs. He became the statesman of the piano and of classical music. That legacy will last.
So will the early recordings, the ones from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s in which that fresh unfussiness has a kind of eternal youth, untouched by experience or pain, that is exhilarating. In the Russian repertoire in which he excelled, Cliburn removed the sense of melancholy unlike any pianist before him or after.
No one stays young and untouched forever. Cliburn also seemed to be very sad but too polite to not put on a good face. His tragedy was, perhaps, that he didn’t know how to express tragedy. But he did know how to do good.