Van Cliburn

A great absence: The first Cliburn competition after the death of its namesake

The drama traditionally has begun a few days before the opening performance of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, when the young competitors first convene in Fort Worth.

At what is known as the draw party, the artists pick numbers from a chalice to determine the playing order in the preliminary round. No one has ever wanted to play first.

But over the past half-century, that night has been memorable for another reason. It was the competition namesake who held the chalice, and that party was when the young musicians from around the world were swept into Van Cliburn’s famous embrace. He hugged them and visited briefly with each, making each starry-eyed competitor feel as if he or she were the most interesting person in the world.

“You didn’t know that force that he is until you met him,” said Fort Worth pianist Shields-Collins Bray, Cliburn’s longtime friend. “A lot of these kids, they won’t know exactly what they are missing. Meeting him was a transformational thing. It wasn’t so much that they were meeting a legend, it was meeting a very warm person who was a legend. It was very inspiring.”

That personal warmth, as much as Cliburn’s legendary career at the keyboard, explains the widespread wistfulness as the 14th Cliburn competition approaches, beginning Friday at Bass Hall. Cliburn died Feb. 27 at age 78 after a battle with bone cancer, so for the first time since the debut competition in 1962, Fort Worth’s premier cultural event will go on without him.

“It will be a terrible sense of absence for me, and I guess for everybody else,” said Richard Casper, a Cliburn classmate at the Juilliard School in the 1950s. Casper and his wife, Elizabeth Carr, have attended every Cliburn competition since 2001. “It’s sad that the contestants will miss him. They all seemed dying to talk to him, however briefly. Van was the Super Glue. It’s as well-run a competition as I’ve ever heard of, and I think it will go on undiminished, but it will be different for us. Less fun.”

It was in 1958 that a 23-year-old Cliburn shocked the world by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. That same year, at a dinner in Fort Worth, Irl Allison, founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, announced that he would offer $10,000 to the winner of a new competition bearing Cliburn’s name. Local piano teachers and civic leaders offered to make Fort Worth the event’s permanent home.

Cliburn was said to be embarrassed by the gesture.

“Oh, don’t worry,” his mother, Rildia Bee, told him then. “There will be one, and that will be it.”

She could not have been more wrong, yet friends say Cliburn continued to feel a little abashed.

“He was always taken aback,” said Richard Rodzinski, Cliburn’s close friend and longtime head of the Cliburn Foundation until his retirement four years ago. “He said it was very strange to hear his name used as a noun — The Cliburn.”

Behind-the-scenes presence

Not that the competition, regarded as one of the world’s finest, is likely to see much change, at least practically speaking. Cliburn had no administrative duties and no part in determining the winners and losers. With a couple of notable exceptions over the years, he carefully kept his opinions about performances and competitors to himself.

Instead, he was like the monarch of the competition, holding the chalice at the draw party at the beginning, handing out the medals to the winners at the end. In between he would quietly come and go from his private box at Bass Hall, luxuriating in the performances, agonizing with the young artists under so much pressure.

“He understood what each one of the participants was going through,” said Thomas Smith, Cliburn’s longtime companion. “Just the act of walking onstage, Van understood very well. And it hurt him — how can I say this without putting words into his mouth? It was difficult for him to see people not be able to fulfill their dreams by at least advancing to the next stage. Which is one reason that Van would never in a million years be on a jury.

“He was always at arm’s length with the competitors until the final round, because of the emotional attachments that could have taken over,” Smith said. “He would become very attached to the people who advanced, only because he got to know them on a deeper level, got to see them more often. They became part of the Cliburn family. A few of them became colleagues and friends.”

But during the competition, he always kept his opinions about the performances to himself. He was never known to utter a critical word.

“He’d have his favorites, no doubt about that, but that was always private,” Smith said. “We’d talk about it at home, but he’d never share his opinion, even with close friends who would go to the competition. He let people make up their own minds, how these kids affected them as they listened. It shouldn’t be how they affected Van.”

One of the few occasions Cliburn singled out a competitor came in 1993, and it created a minor scandal. The pianist was Andrew Armstrong, a 19-year-old American who gave a stellar performance in the preliminaries.

“It was fabulous! Fabulous!” Cliburn was heard to say afterward, walking down a corridor at Ed Landreth Auditorium, the Texas Christian University venue where the preliminaries were then held.

Armstrong was told that the legend wished to speak to him.

“He looked at my hands for a while, and I looked at his hands for a very long time,” Armstrong said after their 15-minute meeting. “I was just gaga, staring.”

That prompted immediate and widespread speculation about whether Cliburn’s attention would affect the jurors. Armstrong advanced to the semifinal round, but no further, after some memory slips. Cliburn was never so publicly effusive again.

An empty seat in the hall

Part of the allure of the competition over the years has been the chance for audience members to see the great man at Bass Hall.

“And if you saw him, you would probably get to talk to him,” Bray said. “And if you got to talk to him, he would talk back to you. People are going to miss that part of it. There won’t be any more Van sightings.”

Rodzinski said the atmosphere in the hall was different, more supercharged, when Cliburn was present.

“When he was in the hall, you knew it,” Rodzinski said. “Van has always played a behind-the-scenes role, and aside from saying a few words at the awards ceremony, he really had stepped back pretty far from any direct involvement. Where it will be felt, I think, is in the indefinable lack of his presence in Fort Worth, sometimes in the theater.”

But while recalling Cliburn and his competition, friends most often remembered his famous empathy with the competitors.

“He deeply appreciated what they were doing,” Smith said. “He understood exactly what they were going through, not for six months or a year of preparatory work, but since early childhood, all the hours and days they put into their craft, their art. The first round — what do they get, 30 minutes to show us, the audience, a glimpse of an entire life of work?

“He knew what was at risk for each one of those kids,” Smith said.

But Cliburn was never really interested in the competitive aspects, Smith said.

“It did pain him to see that sometimes the overall communication appeared to be lost for some. It was a horse race,” Smith said. “The technical capabilities of these kids was mind-boggling to him, but what sometimes bothered him was that there was no story being told, other than who could get to the finish line first.

“He always thought the competition was an opportunity cycle every four years to give these 30 the exposure and an opportunity to share their stories, their gardens, whatever it was they had to say,” Smith said. “Van always played for the person in the last balcony. He couldn’t stand pianists who played for themselves. He just wanted each of those participants to tell a story.”

Jon Nakamatsu, the Cliburn’s 1997 gold medalist, has gone on to a successful performing career after his Fort Worth triumph. In the years since his win, Nakamatsu and Cliburn became friends.

“Knowing he’s not there will certainly put a damper on things, to a certain extent, but what really matters is that his spirit still pervades the competition,” Nakamatsu said. “I think that will continue, at least I hope it will. The main difference is that you won’t have that person who could really identify with us. As much of a legend as he was, we felt he was real. He really understood what we were going through.

“He did it all. He went through a competition. He won it. He had a huge career and freely admitted it wasn’t always a bed of roses,” Nakamatsu said. “Having that realistic but positive look at things was important. It’s sad that’s not there anymore.”

It’s also natural to wonder: What now? Cliburn’s absence has been acutely felt in the office, said Jacques Marquis, the Cliburn Foundation’s new president and CEO.

“I think this Cliburn [competition] will be under a magnifying glass,” Marquis said. “How will the Cliburn react? Van wasn’t there at the competition day to day, but he was the name, the icon. If Van is not there, is the competition going to be as great as ? I think people will watch us closely. That’s why we’re trying very hard to do the best competition there is.”

Competition organizers face the daunting task of paying tribute to Cliburn, without turning the event into something funereal or maudlin.

“Too much is too much and too little is too little,” Marquis said. “I think the things we’re thinking about will be very nice. Not too much, but we know he will always be there.”

The message, Marquis said, will be this:

“This is a transition. We’ve been saluting him, paying tribute. We carry his vision. He is always with us, alive in the vision of the Cliburn. But at the end, the kids are the new messengers. He would have loved that, I think.”

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