Monday, March 4, 2013

Thinking of Van Cliburn

It was with great sadness that I read of pianist Van Cliburn’s passing last week at age 78. Mr. Cliburn had been suffering from bone cancer, and succumbed to illness on Wednesday, February 27th.

For classical music lovers, especially those growing up in the 1960’s, Van Cliburn was a golden name. So great was Cliburn’s fame that his name was even mentioned in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon.

At the height of the Cold War, American-born Cliburn won not only the gold medal at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, but also the heart of the Russian people. One of the most memorable images of the pianist is a photograph taken in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Cliburn is at the piano, looking heavenward and soulful; the area of the stage around the piano strewed with flowers thrown by adoring fans, and right in front of the stage lip are young Russian girls swooning over his playing – it is the ultimate image of the Artist-as-Hero.

From 1958 to 1978, Cliburn had one of the most spectacular careers imaginable in classical music. In 1978, Cliburn decided to take a sabbatical from concert giving, and gave only occasional performances since returning to the spotlight in 1987. His name, however, lives on in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, from which the careers of many talented pianists have been launched.

Every artist has an image in the minds of the public. It is this image that the public knows and loves, not the person. Cliburn, more than many artists, has been the victim of many myths and half-truths. These oft-repeated statements have been so entrenched in people’s minds that most of us have trouble separating fact from fantasy. Even in the many tributes and obituaries written at the time of Cliburn’s death, critics took no time in once again re-hashing these very tired statements.

The myths and half-truths surrounding Cliburn can be summarized quite succinctly:

1.                  Cliburn’s career was fizzling in 1957 before he went to compete in Moscow
2.                  Cliburn was a hit with the Russian audience because he was the exotic American, and his looks appealed to the Russian public
3.                  The only pieces Cliburn played well were Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3
4.                  Cliburn was not able to sustain a long career
5.                  Cliburn did not live up to his early promise

How do we answer these “charges”?

Van Cliburn won the prestigious Leventritt Competition in 1955, after which he received a lot of recital and concerto engagements. In 1957, he was called up for military service, and he therefore told his managers not to book any dates for him in the subsequent year. However, he was rejected by the army for health reasons, and therefore had a relatively open year in 1958. The timing thus became perfect that he was able to compete in Moscow in 1958.

Cliburn won the hearts of the Russian people because of his artistry. Even with the very poor recording quality of the time, his playing at the Tchaikovsky competition, in front of some of the greatest pianists of the time who were judging the competition, was simply spectacular. Sviatoslav Richter, one of the great pianists of our time, called Cliburn a genius, adding that he did not usually associate such a word with performers. Alexander Goldenweiser, a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and the dean of Soviet pianists, said that he had not heard Rachmaninoff’s 3rd concerto played better since the composer last performed. There were other American pianists competing in Moscow in 1958 – Daniel Pollack and Raymond Lowenthal, to name just two - but none of them created a stir the way Cliburn did.

In the years following his Moscow win, Cliburn played solo and concerto appearances, and built up a vast repertoire. Yes, he was probably asked to play Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff more often, but he also essayed large chunks of solo repertoire as well as the standard concerti in the repertory. Great conductors, including Fritz Reiner, Charles Munch, Eugene Ormandy, Zubin Mehta, and Bruno Walter, loved playing with him.

As mentioned before, Cliburn had already enjoyed quite a successful performing career since 1955. After winning the Moscow competition, from 1958 to 1978, Cliburn played well over a hundred concerts for a period of twenty years - not able to sustain a career? Let’s be serious here. Many young musicians would love to “not be able to sustain a career” the way Cliburn did. On top of fulfilling his concert engagements, Cliburn lent his name and talent generously to causes that were close to his heart, namely, organizations and events that promote the arts, such as the Interlochen Arts Academy, and his own Van Cliburn Piano Competition.

As to the question of whether Cliburn “fulfilled his early promise”, one would have to ask with what criteria we are judging him. Vladimir Horowitz, considered by many as the “greatest” (a silly word) pianist of the 20th century, never played as many concerts as Cliburn, and took frequent sabbaticals from the stress of concert-giving. In the last years of his life, Horowitz’s repertoire dwindled to only a handful of solo works and two or three concerti. Yet no one complained that Horowitz did not expand his repertoire, or that he did not “fulfil his promise” as an artist. And no one criticized Horowitz for playing Rachmaninoff and not Bartok. Jascha Heifetz stopped giving concerts at the height of his career, yet no one ever questioned his decision or criticized him for not able to “sustain a long career.” Arthur Rubinstein was an exception, giving performance up to his late eighties, when he was already half-blind, and loving it.

Polonius’ words from Act I of Hamlet, “To thine own self be true,” should be a dictum that every artist live by. I have not always responded to the way Cliburn played certain repertoire, but whether or not we are sympathetic to his music making, we should respect the fact that throughout his life, Van Cliburn had conducted his life and career his way. We can and should be grateful to him for having brought joy and beauty to music lovers the world over for over two decades.

Perhaps history will judge him with greater compassion and fairness, and with less cynicism, than his contemporaries had.

Rest in Peace, Van Cliburn.