Gala Tribute to Pianist Van Cliburn

Fort Worth Star-TelegramRussian Ambassador Yury Ushakov offering up a toast to pianist Van Cliburn at a gala in Fort Worth, Texas.
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Russia's ambassador to the United States paid tribute to "the two Van Cliburns," as he put it, during toasts at a black-tie dinner and musical tribute.

One Cliburn was a proud Texan who conquered Russian hearts with his magnificent artistry, the other was an honorary Russian who was mobbed by Muscovites on the streets hugging and kissing him amid shouts of "Van KLEE-burn!"

"You don't have two heads," Ambassador Yury Ushakov said, "but you have two souls and two hearts, and I propose a toast to both of you."

Sponsored by the Van Cliburn Foundation, the March 1 event commemorated the 50th anniversary of Cliburn's victory in the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in April 1958.

Culture and Press Minister Alexander Sokolov read a message of congratulations from President Vladimir Putin, an honorary sponsor of the event with nearly 1,000 guests in Fort Worth, Texas.

Cliburn, 73, as trim, bright-eyed and effusive as ever, his bushy hair still thick though gray, looked overcome with emotion. He offered a few phrases of gratitude in well-practiced Russian, then delivered an endearingly rambling speech about "200 years of friendship between Russia and America," starting with an exchange of warm letters between President Thomas Jefferson and Tsar Alexander I.

But this had to have been a bittersweet evening for Cliburn, who for nearly 30 years has largely been missing from the classical music field that he electrified during his glory days. For a good dozen years he was the best-known and most popular classical musician in the world. His recordings routinely sold in the hundreds of thousands. His success was hard won and much deserved. But over time the expectations that this cultural emissary and musical superstar faced were impossible to fulfill. His playing declined. After a dispiriting concert in Toledo, Ohio, in 1978, he announced that he was taking a sabbatical. By the late 1980s he had begun playing again, but infrequently. He left his New York apartment and moved to a spacious house in the suburbs of Fort Worth.

Van Cliburn
Reflecting on his current life during a visit to New York in January he seemed wistful but at peace. "I do play concerts from time to time," he said. "I work at home quietly, go to the opera, hear concerts, see friends. I like making up now for what I was not able to have then. And I still have to practice."

It is impossible to overstate the impact of Cliburn's victory at the Tchaikovsky competition and its lingering effects today. That a classical-music artist could attain film-star celebrity, a major touring career and a lucrative recording contract by winning an international competition provided, for better or worse, an enticing new pathway to instant success. Or so it seemed. This anniversary is an apt time to consider the fallout of this event on Cliburn's career, the field of classical music and the world of cultural diplomacy.

There were prestigious competitions before the Tchaikovsky: the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Brussels, for example, which the young pianist Leon Fleisher won in 1952. Cliburn, at 19, won the respected Leventritt Award in 1954, earning a Carnegie Hall debut playing what would become his signature piece, Tchaikovsky's "First Piano Concerto," with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos.

But Cliburn's victory in Moscow four years later was a phenomenon. It came at the height of the Cold War and the dawn of the arms race. Six months earlier the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, shaking the confidence of Americans. By inaugurating an international piano competition at a time when travel by foreigners to the Soviet Union was restricted, the regime was cracking open a door.

To this repressed society came a lanky, boyish, 23-year-old Baptist from Kilgore, Texas, an only child whose father was an oil executive of moderate means and whose mother, a skilled pianist, had been his only teacher until he headed to the Juilliard School in New York at 17 to study with the renowned Russian pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne.

That Cliburn was so openhearted, guileless and sensitive -- qualities that abounded in his playing -- was a large part of his charm. Soviet cultural officials dubbed him "the real American Sputnik." At a reception for the finalists he was bearhugged by Nikita Khrushchev, a music lover who had been impressed by his playing since the second round, when Cliburn performed Chopin's "F Minor Fantasy," a Khrushchev favorite.

Recalling the competition during the interview in New York, Cliburn said that at the time he was oblivious to the political ramifications of his triumph.

In the minds of the jurors, not to mention the passions of the Russian people, Cliburn's victory in Moscow was clearly earned. The formidable pianist Sviatoslav Richter, one of the jurors, called him a genius, a word, he added, "I do not use lightly about performers." When the jurors made official inquiries as to whether they would be permitted to award the prize to a non-Soviet pianist, Khrushchev himself intervened. "Is Cliburn the best?" he asked. "Then give him first prize."