Van Cliburn, a legendary life remembered
Russia is what started it all.
Van Cliburn’s love of Russia, beginning when he saw some candy-colored onion domes in a children’s picture book at age 5. And the Russians’ great love of music, which launched the young American pianist into superstardom after his electrifying win at the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.
Fort Worth claimed its place in this astonishing Cold War story four years later, when an American version of that piano competition was established right here at the height of Cliburn’s global fame and named in his honor.
Now, for the 60th anniversary of Cliburn’s win in Moscow, the Cliburn Festival is celebrating with five concerts of Russian music at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Feb. 22-25.
The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has brought hundreds of young pianists from around the world to Fort Worth for an event that, like the Olympics, is held every four years, is laden with drama and emotion, and is won with a coveted gold medal at the end.
Russian composers — Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev — are popular, notably in the concerto round at the end, when pieces such as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which Cliburn performed in Moscow, play to appreciative full houses at Bass Hall.
And Russia-trained competitors tend to do well. Very well. Recent gold medalists have included Russians Olga Kern (2001) and Alexander Kobrin (2005), and the Ukrainian Vadym Kholodenko (2013). On and on they come, even in the face of new waves of musicians from South Korea and elsewhere in Asia.
Two of 2017’s six finalists were Russians. They — Georgy Tchaidze and Yury Favorin — return to Fort Worth to perform in this month’s festival, along with Kobrin. With the Rolston String Quartet from Rice University and a lineup of four singers, the trio will explore masterpieces of their homeland and show us a variety of Russian styles and themes.
Since winning the 2005 Cliburn gold, Kobrin has toured around the U.S. and the world and taught at several American universities. He became an American citizen in summer 2016, and speaks fluent, rapid-fire English, although he drops his articles a lot in the charming manner so common to Russians.
His reputation as “the Undertaker” in the 2005 Cliburn media coverage was a bit unfair — Kobrin may not have been the flashiest personality, but true fans will remember him horsing around and shooting pool with the charismatic Italian Davide Cabassi or sharing a spontaneous hug with Joyce Yang at the awards ceremony as it became apparent that one of them would win gold, the other silver.
On the first concert of this festival, Kobrin will play Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, always a powerful crowd-pleaser at the competition. He’ll move on to Rachmaninoff and some Shostakovich songs he’s especially excited about. We talked to him about his Van Cliburn memories and what many of us get wrong about Russian music.
Catch us up with what you are doing these days.
We are relocated. With my wife and our 19-month-old baby, I am in Rochester, New York, since I took a position at the Eastman School of Music last fall. That’s for us very exciting. Around that, I’m concertizing and giving master classes. It’s a pretty busy schedule. I think I have a good balance between performance and teaching, but of course it means I don’t have vacations. My wife has to insist on at least one week a year.
Was Van Cliburn important to you before 2005, before you won the competition?
Well, you know, many things in life seem to be coincidences but then turn out not to be. When I was 11, I went for my first trip to Europe for concerts, and all the pocket money we were given I would spend on CDs. First three CDs I bought were all by Van Cliburn. Who knew?
Does Van Cliburn still mean that much to Russian musicians?
Not only to musicians, I would say. We can’t forget what kind of time it was when he won Tchaikovsky Competition, what relations were between Soviet Union and United States. His win was absolutely unexpected and extraordinary. The chairman of the jury had to personally go to Khrushchev informing him that we have a situation — there is nobody better than the young American.
I was blessed to talk to Van Cliburn, to meet him in person and spend quite a bit of time with him. He was as much in love with Russia as Russia was in love with him. He was a key figure in the arts for Soviet Union, the people and the culture. Obviously, for me, he was one of the greatest artists who ever lived. I’m feeling blessed that I got to know him.
Was the 2005 Cliburn Competition the first time you met him?
Yes, I was introduced at the end and of course you are speechless because this is Van Cliburn right in front of you. Then I think we had dinner with everybody. At the end of the dinner he said, “Well, how about you come over for lunch? I’ll call you.” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, right. He has nothing better to do but call me. He will probably forget about it in five minutes.”
The next day, I get this call from unknown number. I’m usually very suspicious about these things but I picked up, and the voice — in Russian, with no accent whatsoever — was calling me by my first name. He calls me Sasha, which is Russian version of Alexander, sort of a nickname. Only being in Russia would you kind of know these things. And then, with no accent, he goes, “This is Vanya,” in Russian. Vanya is Russian version of Van. I was absolutely stunned by it.
We met, and it was one of several meetings we had at his house. It has been absolutely amazing experience. We talked about life, about music, about everything. The last time I saw him was a month or so before he died. It’s really a unique experience meeting a person like him. He was a rare figure, not only musically but also a person. There is an old recording of Vladimir Horowitz called “The Last Romantic.” I believe that Van Cliburn was the last romantic, actually — we lost huge human being.
For our readers, how would you describe what makes Russian music Russian?
Well that’s a vast subject. I’m very happy that Van Cliburn foundation came up with this idea. Honestly, the music you’re about to hear cannot probably put into one Russian tradition. If you take Rachmaninoff, for example, he inherited very Western, European tradition … and Mussorgsky belongs to a very conservative tradition — I could even use the word nationalistic. And Shostakovich is the major figure when you ask what was the 20th century for Russia for Soviet Union, for life under oppression and the terrible things that happened.
What about the pieces you are playing?
The program goes through Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and ends up with this war subject in the music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, as well as this cycle of songs I’m playing written by Shostakovich on Jewish folk songs. They were written in two languages: Yiddish, which is very important in this context because there was no Hebrew at that time available, and Russian, of course.
It’s another major subject: anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, which Shostakovich was brining up very quietly. I feel very attached to Shostakovich, because my family had to go through repressions and camps on both sides, not only Germany but also in Soviet Union and members of my family were executed by Stalin’s regime.
This music is very close to me. The idea that Shostakovich was so pro-regime composer is so false and I feel regret that in the West this perception remains in our day. Listening to his music and everything about him tells you quite the contrary. … I encourage listeners to find actual texts for those songs read them or have them with them before they go to the performance. You will hear how music contradicts the text.
It will be my first time playing these songs. I’m very happy it’s happening in the place that became for me a turning point not only in my career but primarily my personal life, since it brought me to this country for good.
Cliburn Festival: The Music of Russia
7:30 p.m. Feb. 22, 23 and 24, 2 p.m. Feb. 24-25
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth
Individual concerts $20-$50; $80-350 festival subscription.
Van Cliburn: a timeline
July 12, 1934: Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr., immediately known as “Van,” is born in Shreveport, La., to Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, a classical pianist and teacher, and Harvey Lavan Cliburn, an oil executive.
1937: 3-year-old Van sits at the family piano and plays by ear a piece one of his mother’s students had just been playing. Rildia Bee, who studied with a teacher who studied with Franz Liszt, begins Van’s formal piano lessons.
January 1941: The Cliburn family moves to Kilgore.
April 12, 1947: At age 12, Van Cliburn makes his orchestral debut with the Houston Symphony in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
1951-54: Cliburn attends the Juilliard School, whose main task is simply to polish the work Rildia Bee Cliburn has already done.
1954: At age 19, Van Cliburn wins America’s top piano competition, the Leventritt, earning an official Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Philharmonic. He plays Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which will become his signature piece.
April 14, 1958: At 23, Cliburn wins the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, causing a sensation in Russia despite the highly charged atmosphere between Russian and the U.S. just months after Sputnik. He instantly becomes the world’s most famous classical musician and a hero to people on both sides of the Cold War.
May 19, 1958: Cliburn appears on the cover of Time magazine. The headline: “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”
May 20, 1958: Van Cliburn is the first musician to be honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
May 23, 1958: Cliburn and his parents meet President Eisenhower in the Oval Office. Cliburn will go on to perform for every president from Eisenhower to Obama.
May 25, 1958: When Cliburn appears on NBC’s The Steve Allen Show, millions of Americans see him perform for the first time. In the coming years, the pop-culture icon will appear on "What’s My Line?" and "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood," among others.
May 25, 1958: With two sold-out Carnegie Hall appearances this week, Cliburn begins a punishing schedule of concerts that he will maintain for years.
Nov. 30, 1958: Irl Allison, head of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, announces that Fort Worth will be home to the new Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
December 1961: Cliburn’s 1958 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 becomes the first classical LP to sell 1 million copies.
September-October 1962: Just weeks before the Cuban missile crisis, Americans and Russians join in friendly competition at the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth. American Ralph Votapek wins; Russians take second and third.
1967: Because of a luggage mix-up, Cliburn’s tails and tie don’t make it to Washington for a White House recital, so he borrows a set from his friend, President Lyndon Johnson.
Sept. 29, 1978: In Toledo, Ohio, Van Cliburn plays what will be his last public concert for nine years.
1981: Soviet pianists stay away from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in response to the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980; they won’t return until 1989.
1985: Van Cliburn and his mother move to Fort Worth, settling into a grand house in Westover Hills that he’ll fill with 15 pianos and a lifetime of collectibles.
December 1987: Cliburn returns to the public eye with a brief but highly resonant performance at the White House summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
June 20, 1989: After 11 years, Cliburn makes his much-anticipated return to the concert stage in a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “Yes, to end the suspense, Van Cliburn can still play the piano,” begins The New York Times review.
April 11, 2004: Cliburn plays his signature version of The Star-Spangled Banner with the Fort Worth Symphony to help open the new Ballpark in Arlington. The second time through, he surprises everyone by standing up and singing the anthem, inviting the crowd to join in.
August 1994: Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn dies in Fort Worth at age 97.
1996: Tom Zaremba sues Van Cliburn for an undisclosed amount, reported to be in the millions, in a “palimony” suit that is dismissed in local court.
May 14, 1998: Cliburn collapses onstage in one of the opening concerts at the new Bass Hall but recovers within a few hours.
Dec. 2, 2001: Cliburn is one of five Kennedy Center honorees — with Julie Andrews, Jack Nicholson, Luciano Pavarotti and Quincy Jones — celebrated in a black-tie gala in Washington.
July 2003: Van Cliburn is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush.
September 2004: Cliburn is awarded the Order of Friendship (Russia’s highest honor) by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Cliburn performs Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata in a concert dedicated to the hundreds of victims of the Beslan school massacre.
May 13, 2009: The Fort Worth City Council votes to rename part of a street after Van Cliburn. The section of Arch Adams Street between the Kimbell Art Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth becomes Van Cliburn Way.
2011: President Barack Obama awards Van Cliburn the National Medal of Arts “for his contributions as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music and as a persuasive ambassador for American culture.”
May 17, 2012: A sale of a small portion of Van Cliburn’s memorabilia, furniture, silver and art brings in nearly $4.4 million at auction in New York.
Sept. 5, 2012: Ill with advanced bone cancer, Cliburn makes a surprise appearance at a concert for the 50th anniversary of the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Leaving his oxygen tank in the wings, he steps out onto the Bass Hall stage and thanks Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra musicians and audience members, many of whom are in tears. “I’ll love you all from the bottom of my heart forever,” Cliburn says.
Feb. 27, 2013
Van Cliburn dies at age 78 at his mansion in Westover Hills.
March 3, 2013
Fourteen hundred people — friends, dignitaries and fans — attend Van Cliburn’s funeral at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth. In his eulogy, former President George W. Bush says, “Members of the presidents’ club could have taken a lesson from him in diplomacy.”
SOURCES: Star-Telegram archives; Van Cliburn by Howard Reich; The Van Cliburn Legend by Abram Chasins; Time magazine archives; The New York Times archives.