Monday, June 26, 2017

When the World Stopped to Listen

For a great many years, the only books written about the pianist were The Van Cliburn Legend by Abram Chasins  - a book that took many liberties with facts about Cliburn, and Howard Reigh’s Van Cliburn, which is better researched, but still rather one-sided. Within a year, however, there have two books written about the pianist. Last year, Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights gave a more in depth and comprehensive picture of Cliburn’s win in Moscow, as well as the impact he had on the musical world. This past weekend, I finished reading Stuart Isacoff’s When the World Stopped to Listen – Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath (Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 2017).

In this latest volume, Isacoff begins by revealing some interesting information about Cliburn’s mother, an accomplished pianist in her own right, as well as the young pianist’s upbringing. Starting at four years old, Cliburn had to wait on his parents at the dinner table, “as if they were guests, and then to do the same for neighbors.” Cliburn’s parents believed that this would instill a sense of humility in the young man, as well as prevent him from feeling too special. According to the author, “serving graciously became a life refrain”, and would affect Cliburn’s attitude towards his many fans and audience members. Isacoff writes: “This was especially true in the concert hall, where he came to view the audience as guests to be served, a notion that brought such attendant pressures it could turn routine musical occasions into ordeals.” Even to his dying days, Cliburn was known for his courteousness towards even strangers. Perhaps it was this attitude to please that prevented him from having an aloofness of spirit, something that all great artists need.

It was also a great surprise for me to learn that Cliburn’s legendary teacher, Rosina Lhévinne, was not the original choice of Mrs. Cliburn to be Van’s teacher. Cliburn’s friend and fellow pianist Jimmy Mathis was studying with the (at the time) even more famous Olga Samaroff. It was only Samaroff’s sudden death that led his parents to consider Lhévinne as Van’s teacher. As in the Cliff book, Iscaoff reveals how much Lhévinne was hurt by Cliburn’s failing to acknowledge her teaching – not to mention the many hours of free lessons he received from her before the competition – as his famed rose after the competition.

For me, the most interesting chapters were the ones addressing the socio-political landscape of the Soviet Union and the evolution of the Tchaikovsky Competition, as well as the chapter giving a picture of Russian society at the time. It was the year of Sputnik, when the Soviets were “basking in its scientific glory in the space race,” and they wanted to show their superiority in the sphere of music. The organizers of the competition were certain that the winners would be Soviet pianists and violinists. It was a common belief among Russians that in spite of great wealth, American society was “brutish and empty.” In that way, Cliburn’s love affair with Russians, from Khrushchev to ordinary men and women, went a long way into altering that perception. Both Cliff and Isacoff point out in their respective books that Cliburn’s win at the Tchaikovsky sowed the seeds of democracy that led eventually to Gorbachev’s Perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Isacoff also reveals some startling facts about Cliburn’s personal struggles with fame. According to the author, Cliburn came to rely heavily upon the treatments of Dr. Max Jacobson, whose patients included, among many celebrities, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy who was well known for his health problems. You can read more about Dr. Jacobson in many of the presidents’ biographies.

We now know that Jacobson’s infamous injections were a cocktail of amphetamines, vitamins, painkillers, steroids, and human placenta – a frightening pharmacological combination. Jacobson’s license to practice medicine was eventually revoked. It was also revealed in the current book that Cliburn had come to depend on astrology in making his personal and professional decisions, to the extent that “he did not make a move without consulting an astrologer.”

Cliburn’s eventual win at the Tchaikovsky, according to Isacoff, was far from a forgone conclusion. In the Appendix of the volume, the author includes the breakdown of scores for the pianists in the second-round which show that the race was very close between Cliburn and Lev Vlassenko, the leading Soviet contender, and Liu Shikun, the leading pianist from Communist China (who was to suffer grievously during the Cultural Revolution). It was only Van’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as well as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 that propelled him to the very top. If you listen to his magisterial performances of these two concerti in the final round, you would understand why. I believe that in that great hall, and in front of that audience, Van Cliburn was truly inspired to give his all. And perhaps nothing that came afterwards would match the intensity and inspiration of that moment.

For me, Cliburn’s greatest impact had to be his elevation of the status (and financial well being) of concert artists, as well as, perhaps unfortunately, focusing our attention towards music competitions, and for its proliferation. There had been other American pianists who had captured top prizes at international competitions. None of them really captured the imagination of the world like Van Cliburn did.

If you were to ask pianists or musicians to name their favourite pianists, probably very few would list Van Cliburn to be among them. No, Van Cliburn’s place in music history is, for me, a result of his really creating for our generation this image of the artist as hero, and for perhaps bringing many people towards an awareness, if not an appreciation, for classical music. I believe that Van Cliburn would be for my generation what Ignacy Jan Paderewski was to the early decades of the century – an inspiring, even larger than life personality, more than a musician or a pianist.

Anyone who has an interest in music, in cold war politics, and in Soviet history and society, would find Isacoff’s well-researched and eloquently written volume a very rewarding read.

Patrick May
June 26, 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Strauss Feast in Seattle

No one says goodbye quite like Richard Strauss. And not just in obviously elegiac works like the Vier Letzte Lieder or Metamorphosen. Listen to the final moments of Der Rosenkavalier, Capriccio, the death scene in Don Quixote, or the coda of Eine Alpensinfonie, and you would hear these very beautiful and special moments of farewell.

When I saw the programme for the Seattle Symphony’s concert this past weekend, I knew that I would have to make the trip down to the Emerald City. Vier Letzte Lieder in the first half and Eine Alpensinfonie after the interval – life just doesn’t get better than this. And it is always a treat to hear this wonderful orchestra in beautiful Benaroya Hall.

Soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin was the soprano soloist in the Vier Letzte Lieder, with Thomas Dausgaard sensitively weaving the gorgeous orchestral texture Strauss provides. Barkmin has a voice that could easily sail above any orchestra. Look at the operatic roles she tackles – Marie in Wozzeck, Isolde, Sieglinde, Emilia Marty in Věc Makropulos, to name just a few, and you would realize the kind of voice she needs to have. On Saturday, the power of her voice was of course evident, but there was also sensitivity in how she paints the words in music. It was a deeply moving performance, especially in the final two songs, and her singing of the final lines of Im Abendrot, “Wie sind wir wandermüde – ist dies etwa der Tod?” was especially heartfelt and affecting. She obviously meant what she sang. Thomas Dausgaard was most effective and sensitive in bringing out the beauty of Strauss’s orchestral writing. The French horn and violin solos in Beim Schlafengehen were particularly beautifully played.

The tear ducts were barely dry when Barkmin granted us an encore, Morgen, also by Strauss. It was a wonderfully intimate performance of one of Strauss’s most loving and lovely songs, and the wonderful violinist (I wasn’t sure of her name, as the orchestral personnel lists the concertmaster and associate concertmaster positions as currently vacant) who played the solos deserved equal credits for the meltingly beautiful performance.

A substantially enlarged orchestra – everything but the kitchen sink, almost - filled the stage after the interval for the composer’s Eine Alpensinfonie, which conductor André Previn referred to as “giant piece of strudel.” I personally find this to be one of the composer’s most endearing tone poems. Dausgaard, not surprisingly, reveled in the music, and successfully marshaled the huge orchestral forces and inspired them to play their best. I was so taken with how lush sounding the Seattle strings were on Saturday. There was, however, a feeling of riding from climax to climax, rather than presenting the work as an organic whole, with a sense of totality. This is easier said than done with this large work, as the many “tunes” are so very irresistible. The strings and bassoons played the opening descending B-flat minor scale with a palpable sense of mystery, and the four trombones and tuba at rehearsal 1 matched this atmosphere.

The celli and basses played the opening of Der Anstieg with gusto as well as the necessary weight in sound. I thought that the Jaghörner von ferne at five measures after 18 could have been much more boisterous. It was a little too reserved for my taste. The interplay between the woodwinds and strings in Am Wasserfall was most effectively done. In Auf dem Gipfel, Dausgaard deftly paced the strings in leading up to the oboe solo at 77. The oboe solo was extremely well played. What I missed, however, was this sense of breathless wonder, especially in the off-beat 8th notes at one measure after 77, when the mountain climber beholds the scenery below. However, the slowly emerging theme in the strings (79) unfolded beautifully, as was the brass theme at 80.

In Elegie (100), I thought that the strings could have played with a greater weight of sound. Yes, Strauss did write piano, but he also added espressivo, which I think is more crucial in creating the sadness, the feeling of regret, in the string colours.

The clarinet solo (7 measures after 103) was effectually played, and conjured the sense of impending danger in Stille vor dem Sturm. The orchestra was most impressive with their virtuosic playing in effectively conjuring up the storm. From my seat in row 4, the sound and the force of the orchestra were palpable.  The brass section was most convincing in conveying the feeling of majesty at 128, the few measures leading up to Sonnenuntergang. I was especially looking forward to the organ entry at 134 (Ausklang), since Benaroya Hall is one of the few halls blessed with a beautiful pipe organ. I was not disappointed. I did, however, think that the initial entry was a trifle too loud (Strauss indicated only forte), which took away the feeling of sacredness in the moment. The string playing of the beautiful theme at 138 was most heartfelt. In Nacht, Dausgaard effectively evokes the sense of mystery that was so apparent in the opening.

What a great privilege and pleasure it had been to hear these two great works of Richard Strauss. I am guessing that Eine Alpensinfonie is rarely done not only because of its difficulty, requiring heroic playing from every member of the orchestra, but because of the expense. Dausgaard and each and every one in the Seattle Symphony certainly rose to Strauss’s challenge, and gave all of us an indelible musical experience this past weekend.

Patrick May
Vancouver, Canada