The memory of pianist Van Cliburn was honored with a series of free performances in the Sundance Square Plaza Thursday evening.
Cliburn, a legend in classical musical circles who also played a role in the Cold War after his victory at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, died at his Fort Worth home on Feb. 27, 2013. He was 78.
Thursday’s event, which began at 5 p.m., featured short sets by eight alumni of various Van Cliburn International Piano Competitions — the quadrennial piano performance contest named for the pianist and now held at nearby Bass Hall.
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The event was low-key. There were no images of Cliburn to be seen except those on a program listing the pieces to be played. The pianists performed before a simple banner bearing Cliburn’s autograph and the dates of his birth and death.
And, perhaps fittingly, the event let the music do the talking. Very little was said about the honoree by host Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of the Cliburn, or the pianists. Most of them echoed the sort of remarks made by Antonio Pompa-Baldi, acknowledging the greatness of Cliburn as a musician but also emphasizing what a genuine, caring human being he was.
“I was extremely honored that the Cliburn invited me. It gives me a chance to show how much admiration and respect I have for Van Cliburn. And that will never die,” said Pompa-Baldi, a silver medalist at the 2001 competition.
“You always came away thinking that this great man really cared about you and your career.”
Pompa-Baldi teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music when he is not concertizing.
The pianists performed on a Steinway piano on a stage at the west end of the new downtown plaza. More than a dozen loudspeakers carried the sound around the area and echoed down the relatively quiet streets leading to and from the square.
A light crowd of about 100 was present when Jose Feghali (gold medalist, 1985) opened the event with a performance of The Star Spangled Banner, followed closely by Yakov Kasman (silver medalist, 1997) performing a work by Rachmaninoff, one of the composers with whom Cliburn was closely associated.
But those numbers quickly more than doubled as downtown workers began to amble through the plaza, where many were no doubt surprised to see world-class pianists performing in an open-air setting on a slightly chilly afternoon (temperatures were in the mid-50s when the concert began).
During the performances, a seating section comprising about 200 folding chairs served as a sort of unofficial “quiet zone” where the crowd (which appeared to be a mix of the loyal fans and volunteers known as “Cliburn Nation,” as well as some of the host families of the participating pianists) attended closely to the music.
On the periphery, the crowd, which peaked at about 300 before falling to about half that when darkness brought still cooler temperatures, had a much more chatty and casual atmosphere.
The pianists were protected from the cold by two heaters on the stage, while the well-bundled crowd was left to warm themselves with adult beverages from a bar set up on the plaza for the occasion and hot java from a coffee shop on the square.
But whatever the level of engagement, the distance award for the event must have gone to Joan Rentel, who made a 1,700-mile trek from her home in Exeter, N.H., to enjoy the performances and honor Cliburn’s memory.
“I have been an admirer and devotee of Van Cliburn since I was 15,” said Rentel, who studied piano at Juilliard. “I decided I was going to be the next Van Cliburn. Well, there never was another Van Cliburn, and there never will be.”
A local couple also took a surprisingly circuitous route to the concert.
“We heard about it from friends of ours in New York,” said Ariel Feldman, a religion professor at TCU who brought the whole family — his wife Faina, and piano playing sons, Jonathan and Tal.
“We grew up in Russia, so the name of Van Cliburn very much resonates with us.”