Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Pianist Van Cliburn
Van Cliburn died Wednesday morning, February 27, 2013, at his Fort Worth home that he shared with his partner Thomas L. Smith, who survives him. Cliburn succumbed to a long bout with bone cancer.
Van Cliburn, born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. in 1934, is an American pianist who at the age of 23 won the first ever International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.
He was a child prodigy, of course, racking up an impressive list of accomplishments, including a debut with the Houston Symphony at age 13 and a Carnegie Hall debut at age 20. But it was his achievement three years later that made him a household name all over the world. The Tchaikovsky Piano Competition was a bit of staged propaganda designed to confirm Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, following on the heels of Russia’s technological coup with the Sputnik space launch in 1957. However, things did not go as planned. Cliburn's performances of the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff piano concertos resulted in an 8-minute standing ovation, establishing him as the clear audience favorite. His electrifying technique, focus, brilliant octave playing, liberal applications of rubato and youthful charm made for an historic performance. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter pronounced Cliburn a genius; Khachaturian declared him "better than Rachmaninoff"; Emil Gilels kissed him in reverence. The Soviet puppet judges were compelled to ask Premier Khrushchev for permission to award first prize to an American. Cliburn was handed the gold medal by none other than famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch.
After his unanimous win, the American media went nuts. “Van” Cliburn (even to this day, few know his given name is Harvey) was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time in history that such an honor was bestowed on a classical musician. He appeared on the cover of TIME magazine with the headline: "The Texan Who Conquered Russia" (inside, the feature stated, "He may be Horowitz, Liberace and Presley rolled into one.") His subsequent recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album to sell a million copies and became the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade.
Cliburn made the rounds of talk shows and demonstrated his patriotism in every concert performance by leading off with “The Star Spangled Banner.” He traveled extensively, playing frequently for heads of state. Tall, with dashing good looks, huge hands and talent to spare, he became the first classical artist to receive a $10,000 fee for a concert. His career was red hot. He played at the New York World's Fair to a full house, while Stravinsky conducted a concert before a half empty auditorium.
However, just twenty years later, at the age of 43, when most pianists are at the peak of their careers, he withdrew from concertizing and recording. Most critics agree that he never realized his potential. Although he became the artistic advisor for the eponymous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962, thus providing an enduring legacy, his recitals lost their freshness as his overwrought style of playing fell out of fashion. His performances became inconsistent, his tone took on a strident edge, he let his repertoire stagnate and his interpretations became trivialized by affectations. He also became a difficult prima donna, often showing up late or cancelling at the last minute. Worse, he became adversely affected by stage fright and was intimidated by his audience’s high expectations.
For decades thereafter he mostly stayed at home in Fort Worth with his mother until her death at age 97, playing and composing on the 15 pianos throughout the mansion. He labored over a piano sonata he never performed, and he made increasingly rare returns to the concert hall. He became obsessed with collecting antique silver. But things got even weirder. In 1996 Thomas Zaremba filed a palimony suit against Cliburn, claiming that because of "an oral and/or implied partnership agreement," he was entitled to a share in Cliburn's assets. Zaremba said that he had assisted in the management of Cliburn's career and finances and performed domestic duties, including helping Cliburn care for his aged mother. Zaremba further alleged a dangerous sexual element to their relationship, claiming that Cliburn may have exposed him to AIDS during their 17-year affair, which ended in 1994 when Zaremba moved to Michigan to work as a mortician. I’m not making this up.
Cliburn had little comment on the charges, remaining closed mouthed during interviews. Although cultural insiders had long been aware of his homosexuality, the press had never linked him romantically to any man, even though he and Zaremba appeared together at public functions in Fort Worth. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed because of lack of a written agreement, which Texas law required.
Nevertheless, Cliburn went on to receive the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 by President George W. Bush, and in 2004 was given the Russian Order of Friendship, the highest civilian awards of the two countries.
Now in his late 70s, he participates in a limited number of concerts. Cliburn still resides in Fort Worth, where he shares a home with his partner Thomas L. Smith. Cliburn remains a staunch Baptist and regular church goer who does not drink or smoke. For much of the American public, their image of Cliburn is frozen in time, conjuring up an exuberant youth stunning the world with his 1958 victory in Moscow.
On a personal note, I think Cliburn’s recording of the Samuel Barber piano sonata is an unsung landmark performance, especially given the fact that Cliburn was not celebrated for this sort of repertoire. As an aside, it should not be lost on us that both Tchaikovsky and Barber were gay men. Also, silver medallist Yeol eum Son (South Korea) from the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has become a favorite; her engaging performances are much to my taste.
Fortunately the historic medal-winning live performance of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto #1 from 1958 (Moscow) is available in its entirety on YouTube: