Van Cliburn and Liu Shih Kun were on top of the international piano world in 1958 when they came in first and second, respectively, at the inaugural Tchaikovsky competition.
But when they exited the stage and returned to their home countries, their lives took very different paths.
A triumphant Cliburn was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York and many concert engagements worldwide.
Kun finished his studies at the Moscow conservatory and returned to Beijing, where he was forced to carry heavy stones at a work camp and then spent five years in a Chinese prison, mostly in solitary confinement.
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“I never thought about the piano anymore,” Kun said in an interview Tuesday through a translator. “I just thought if I could still be alive. I thought nothing about music.”
Yet Kun survived the Cultural Revolution in China and in the late 1970s returned to the concert stage. He has started hundreds of music schools in over 30 cities in China, which are attended by more than 60,000 kindergarten and elementary students.
And this week, Kun, 74, is in Fort Worth, a jury member of the Cliburn piano competition, evaluating the talent of 30 young pianists, just as he was judged more than 50 years ago with Cliburn at the Tchaikovsky.
“I was very excited [to be a juror]. This competition is very special because of Van and it has special meaning to me,” Kun said.
A chance meeting in a corridor
During the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, Kun didn’t attend the performances of the other competitors because he needed to focus on practicing. But he had heard there was an American participant who played very well.
Kun ran into Cliburn in the corridor of the practice rooms, and Cliburn said hello first.
“He followed me to the classroom where I was practicing, and he said he would like to listen, so I played one piece for Van,” said Kun, remembering he played Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise, Opus 53. “Van applauded after my performance, so I asked Van to perform. He played Liszt’s Liebestraum. I also applauded and really loved his playing.”
After the prizes were announced at the Tchaikovsky, Kun said, the two posed for a picture with their hands together, although Van’s much larger hand dwarfed Kun’s.
“Everyone paid so much attention to us as they didn’t expect two dark horses to win the competition, but when we went back to our countries, our experiences were totally different,” Kun said.
Labor at the conservatory
Kun spent two more years studying at the Moscow Conservatory before returning to China in the early 1960s. He played a few public concerts and taught at the Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music. Kun said he even played a private concert at communist leader Mao Zedong’s house in 1964.
But then the focus of the Chinese government changed, Kun said, and educated Chinese like him were forced to perform physical labor. For two or three months at a time, Kun would go to the countryside to work on farms.
“They started to tell the musicians we needed to serve the farmers and peasants,” Kun said.
He was then restricted from leaving the Central Conservatory building and spent a year cleaning toilets. Since toilet paper could not be flushed down the toilets at that time, he had to carry a large bamboo container on his back every day to pick up the used toilet paper and throw it away.
Sometimes, his guards hit his arms with a military belt as punishment. The beatings broke the bone in his right forearm which took two months to heal.
“They treated me like an animal,” he said.
No pianos in prison
On Sept. 3, 1967, Kun was sent to prison. He would spend the next five years at three prisons in China during the Cultural Revolution.
At Qincheng, which has housed several famous political dissidents and corrupt Chinese officials, he spent most of his time in solitary confinement. Kun said he was cut off from the outside world, allowed to interact with only the two guards who gave him daily meals.
Kun had only one shirt to wear during winter, and his hair became white, as he was not allowed outside into the sunlight.
“People always ask me what the environment was like in prison. ‘Did they give you a piano to play?’ It’s a very funny question,” Kun said. “It’s worse than what we have now. No. 1 is the Nazi camps and second was this prison.”
He finally found a way to create a letter using a half-sheet of newspaper the guards forgot to collect one day. Using a bristle from a broom, he cut the Chinese characters out and then used prison rice gruel as glue to form a letter written to Zedong, pleading to be released.
Kun’s wife smuggled the letter out of the prison during one of her visits and gave it to her father, a Chinese general, who passed the note on to the chairman. Mao ordered his release in May 1973.
“I was not sure until that moment if I would still be alive,” Kun said.
Back in the piano world
After his release, Kun spent several months in a hospital. And then, Mao asked him to play in public with the 200-member China National Symphony Orchestra. Kun had not touched a piano in more than seven years.
“They wanted to see if I could still play,” Kun said.
But what to play was a problem, as foreign pieces were not allowed, nor were older Chinese piano compositions. Only two pieces, both written while Kun was imprisoned, could be played publicly. One included a Chinese opera singer and the other was the Yellow River Concerto. Kun chose the concerto since he didn’t have a vocalist for the performance.
“I had never played this piece, but I heard it all the time through the windows of the prison,” Kun said. The song was played often on the village loudspeakers. “My father trained me to play piano by listening, so I was able to play this piece having never practiced it before.”
In 1979, Kun was allowed to travel to the United States and performed with the Boston Symphony, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Since then, Kun has played hundreds of concerts in China and at other international venues.
Kun immigrated to Hong Kong in 1990 and began to teach piano to private students. He opened his first piano school in Hong Kong in 1992 and eventually opened dozens in mainland China in more than 30 cities to teach young students how to play.
“The middle class in China, they are now able to afford all these expenses for the piano and for music,” Kun said. “There is a boom to learn how to play the piano.”
He often travels for concerts and has juried other competitions, but this is his first time to serve on the jury at the Cliburn. Kun said he tried to contact Van Cliburn through mutual friends throughout the years but couldn’t reconnect until last year, when Kun played at a concert in Fort Worth.
“It had been more than half-century since I’d seen Van, but it was nice,” Kun said.
And asked to pick his favorite piano piece?
“My favorite is Van’s Rachmaninoff 3,” Kun said.