The Van Cliburn memorial concert celebrated Thursday in Sundance Square might best be encapsulated in a phrase penned by German poet Heinrich Heine: “Where words leave off, music begins.”
In an evening marked by few words, melodies played on a Steinway at the top of the square provided a most appropriate telling of the life and passion of Fort Worth’s most musical citizen.
The concert, a free event marking one year since Cliburn’s death, featured short performances by eight alumni of various Van Cliburn International Piano Competitions, which are held every four years in Bass Hall.
For a little over three hours the world-class pianists tickled the ivories.
“They must have played every key on the piano,” remarked audience member Asher Wolfe, 10, of Fort Worth.
Sonatas and suites by Schumann, Debussy and Rachmaninov swelled throughout the square and drifted down the neighboring streets, delighting listeners and passers-by.
Had the evening not been so crisp a larger crowd may have lingered, but even so, the purpose of the tribute was not lost on anyone who stopped by to listen.
And it was clear in watching the performers how deeply they were affected by the man whose life they had come to celebrate.
“I liked the way they honored Van Cliburn,” commented Graham Wolfe, 12, a young pianist himself.
Cliburn became a national cultural hero at 23 when he won the Soviet Union’s first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition — an event intended to showcase Soviet pianists — in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.
Upon returning to the U.S., “The Texan who conquered Russia” capitalized on his instant celebrity, appearing in concert halls and on radio and television programs throughout the country and establishing the quadrennial piano competition bearing his name in Fort Worth.
But those who knew him well would say that the artist’s legacy is more about generosity and modesty than fame and fortune.
As Carla Thompson, chairman of The Cliburn Foundation board, briefly stated before opening the concert, Cliburn’s life was marked by his “commitment to sharing beautiful music with as many people as possible.”
And that is exactly what the tribute concert successfully accomplished.