February 27, 2013

RIP Van Cliburn

Pianist Van Cliburn performs for a packed house in the Great Hall of the Moscow Coservatory in April 1958 during
the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. Associated Press file photo via Dallas Morning News

The man who put Fort Worth in particular and Texas in general on the fine arts map of the world has died at the age of 78.
Van Cliburn's talent alone might have earned him a place among the 20th-century giants of his instrument, alongside classical pianists like Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. But after a magical Moscow spring in 1958, Mr. Cliburn's fame eclipsed even those musical contemporaries, rivaling that of another young superstar of his time, Elvis Presley.

Mr. Cliburn was "The Texan Who Conquered Russia," according to a Time magazine cover. At the height of the Cold War, the lanky 23-year-old from East Texas traveled to Moscow and won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, an event created to showcase Soviet cultural superiority. Mr. Cliburn's unlikely triumph was thus said to bring a thaw in tensions between the rival superpowers and created a mythic parable about the power of art to unite mankind.
It was an iconic moment. Not just in the Cold War, but in American classical music, demonstrating that American home-grown talent in the highly competitive world of the piano did exist.

Per the New York Times obit, he wasn't alone.

Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/2013/02/27/4647640/van-cliburn-dies.html#storylink=cpy
At the time, America had produced an exceptional generation of pianists besides Mr. Cliburn who were all in promising stages of their own careers, among them Leon Fleisher, Byron Janis, Gary Graffman and Eugene Istomin. 
Like Rachmaninoff, one of the Russians he played in Moscow, he could span 12 white notes with his hands, allowing his technique, described like this:
He developed a commanding technique, cultivated an exceptionally warm tone and manifested solid musical instincts. At its best, his playing had a surging Romantic fervor, but leavened by an unsentimental restraint that seemed peculiarly American.
That said, I also agree with this portion of the Times' assessment:
But if the Tchaikovsky competition represented Mr. Cliburn’s breakthrough, it also turned out to be his undoing. Relying inordinately on his keen musical instincts, he was not an especially probing artist, and his growth was stalled by his early success. Audiences everywhere wanted to hear him in his prizewinning pieces, the Tchaikovsky First Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Third.

His subsequent explorations of wider repertory grew increasingly insecure. During the 1960s he played less and less. By 1978 he had retired from the concert stage; he returned in 1989, but performed rarely. Ultimately, his promise and potential were never fulfilled.  
Van Cliburn himself said he felt like he "had been at this thing for 20 years already" by 1958, and that in part explains why he didn't develop further.

It's a shame. Prokofiev and other moderns could have well stood the attention of a more mature Van Cliburn.

He did, per the NYT, sound OK on Prokofiev, but earlier composers?
Yet as early as 1959, his attempts to broaden his repertory were not well received. That year, for a New York Philharmonic pension fund benefit concert at Carnegie Hall conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Mr. Cliburn played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25, the Schumann Concerto and the Prokofiev Third Concerto. Howard Taubman, reviewing the program in The Times, called the Mozart performance “almost a total disappointment.” Of the Schumann he wrote that Mr. Cliburn provided “sentimentality rather than Romantic sentiment.” Only the Prokofiev was successful, he wrote, praising the brashness, exuberance and crispness of the playing. 

Reviewing a 1961 performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto by Mr. Cliburn with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, Mr. Schonberg wrote, “It was the playing of an old-young man, but without the spirit of youth or the mellowness of age.” ...

Despite the criticism, Mr. Cliburn tried to expand his repertory, playing concertos by MacDowell and Prokofiev and solo works by Samuel Barber (the demanding Piano Sonata), Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Liszt. But the artistic growth and maturity that were expected of him never fully came.
In short, Van Cliburn early on showed that he wasn't going to be Glenn Gould.

However, he did, through starting the Van Cliburn Competition, give another gift to American classical music -- its further development. For that alone, we should all be very grateful.

Scott Cantrell at the Dallas Morning News, an email acquaintance of mine from my days in Dallas describes the start of that, as well as his life in Fort Worth:
He already had many friends in Fort Worth, where in 1962 the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was inaugurated in his honor. He served as an artistic adviser to the competition, to be held again in May and June 2013, and he took a keen interest in its winners’ careers.

With the aura of an old-school Southern gentleman, with a velvety baritone voice, Mr. Cliburn became Fort Worth royalty. He was as warmly gracious to the youngest piano student as to the city’s movers and shakers.

“He was a true, true gentleman,” (Richard Rodzinski, former executive director of the Van Cliburn Foundation) said, “genuinely modest, self effacing, always surprised at people remembering him, appreciating him. Generosity, modesty, gentleness, incredibly loyalty as a friend, great, great kindness — these were the attributes that made people so terribly fond [of] him.”
That said, Cantrell reflects what the Times said about his later career:
In 1989, Mr. Cliburn started to revive his concert career, and he performed that September at the opening of Dallas’ Meyerson Symphony Center. He again appeared with major orchestras and continued to draw rapturous audiences, but the old magic appeared only intermittently. The rich tone of his earlier years had hardened, his memory and technique had become less reliable and his interpretations had become fussy, mannered. A couple of onstage fainting spells made headlines.

“Something died there,” Bryce Morrison, a British critic specializing in piano performance, said in a 2004 interview. “I do think he was a victim of his own success, a victim of a commercial thing that can make you and destroy you at the same time. It wasn’t a very long career before things started to crack.”
No matter. He continued to grace the Cliburn Competition with his presence, his self.

And, I may just look at going to this year's competition, in part for the tributes that will be sure to flow.

At the same time, the Times reminds us he was a person ... not just a performer. That included discreetly slipping out of the gay closet in the 1960s, then being forcefully shoved out the rest of the way by a 1995 palimony suit. Beyond that, his mother lived with him in Fort Worth until she died at the age of 97 and was his only childhood piano teacher before he went to Julliard.

I get the feeling that Van Cliburn was indeed an "old soul" in some ways. But, somehow, that did NOT transfer to his music-making ability. Had it, he might not only have been better at Beethoven, but, albeit in a different way than Gould, he might have become a great Bach interpreter.

Perhaps that's because he was, in part, smothered by his mother, too. I just get the feeling that for both better AND worse, she made him what he is.

And so, as a result, he wasn't good with Beethoven, and never really tackled Bach.. So, like many others, I've only heard his Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff myself.

And so, back to what got him started.

Here's a performance, from 1962, of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto that won him fame in Moscow in 1958:

Remember him at his best. Just as we'll remember Gould doing Bach or Beethoven, and not Rachmaninoff. Remember him as an incubator for American pianists. Remember him as a booster for Fort Worth.

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