Monday, March 4, 2013

Van Cliburn leaves the stage

America's first classical music superstar died Wednesday, nearly 55 years after he'd set the world afire with a performance at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. Our culture never produced a more immediately popular performer in that field and, now that classical music has been marginalized from the mainstream of American culture, may not again.

At this distance, it's hard to believe that his win earned him a photo on the cover of Time magazine and a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York. (Five years later, only astronauts were getting those.) His subsequent recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, the piece that earned him an eight-minute standing ovation at the competition, became the first million-selling classical album in history.

I spent the weekend revisiting his recordings. The cheapest way to explore them is through a Sony box, "Van Cliburn Plays Great Piano Concertos," which contains seven CDs (though no commentary or photos) for about $20. It includes that still-dazzling Tchaikovsky, plus 15 other concertos. (An expensive but socially useful way to learn more is to give $500 to WDAV-FM. As I drove to work today, the station was offering a 28-CD Cliburn collection as part of its fund drive.)

You can see why he conquered even the Soviet judges, who allegedly asked Premier Nikita Khrushchev if they were allowed to give an American the prize. The playing has a quality Germans call innigkeit, a poignant intimacy of feeling. Most pianists power through Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov; Cliburn doesn't dawdle but isn't interested in fireworks. This is less of a virtue when he plays Liszt or Prokofiev, which require more percussiveness than poetry, but he makes you rethink these pieces.

His passing reminds me of three things. First, a great musician knows when to take a rest. By the mid 1970s, when I saw him with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he seemed tired and unfocused, missing notes in the Tchaikovsky First. (He took a hiatus from 1978 to 1987, after which he reportedly came back strongly.)

Second, a great musician does more than just play. He was an ambassador for the instrument, creating a Van Cliburn Foundation that has run an International Piano Competition in Texas for 50 years.

Third, Cliburn represented the triumph of art over politics. It's hard after so many decades to remember the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1958. The Cold War closed borders, split the city of Berlin, set off a nuclear arms race and a space race and various other kinds of unhealthy contests.

The Tchaikovsky competition was created that year to show the superiority of Soviet musicians. The now forgotten Valery Klimov won  the gold medal for violin in 1958, and Soviet pianists won or shared the top prize in the following six competitions. But even hard-line Soviets had to acknowledge the beauty and spirituality of the 23-year-old American's playing. We forget sometimes that music has such power to remove barriers and heal broken places, but it does.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. He was an amazing talent.