So who was Van Cliburn, anyway?

BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN

 

Yes, he lent his name to America’s most famous piano competition, one that takes place every four years in his adopted hometown of Fort Worth. Each winner comes to the Queen City via Charlotte Concerts, as 2017 champion Yekwon Sunwoo will do March 1 in a season-ending performance at Halton Theater.

 

But who was Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr., who died five years ago at 78, long after his career had petered out?

 

Few Americans would’ve asked that question six decades ago. The 24-year-old Texan landed on Time Magazine’s cover after winning first prize in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition. His victory came in 1958 at the height of the Cold War, two years after Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had promised Western democracies “We will bury you!” in a speech to the United Nations. (He meant “We will outlast you,” but some people took it literally.)

 

The U.S. and U.S.S.R. had entered a space race, an Olympic medals race, a nuclear weapons race and every other kind of competition designed to boost the egos of superpowers. Surely no American pianist could be better than a master from Russia!

 

But after Cliburn blew the Moscow crowd away with Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Third, fans gave him an eight-minute ovation. Nervous judges reportedly went to the premier to ask if an American should be allowed to beat them on their own ground. Khrushchev reportedly replied, “Is he the best? Then give him the prize!” They did, and he returned to the only ticker-tape parade New York City has thrown for a classical musician.

 

His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 won a 1958 Grammy for Best Classical Performance and became the first album to sell a million copies. He appeared everywhere from Steve Allen’s prime-time NBC show to the Eisenhower White House. At the height of Cliburn’s fame, Dr. Irl Allison (founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers) undertook to raise money for an American contest like the one in Moscow. In 1962, the first Cliburn competition took place.

 

Alas, his career faltered after 15 years, as his technique began to fray. I saw him miss notes, slur passages and stumble through the Tchaikovsky First with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1975; three years later, he retired. Though he returned later to public performance, he never approached his early greatness.

 

But greatness he had, and the proof is in the box set Van Cliburn: Great Piano Concertos. It collects all the concerto recordings from his heyday: Glittering Tchaikovsky, sparkling Grieg, heartfelt Brahms, rugged Rachmaninov, even puckish Prokofiev — all played with intelligence, dignity, fire (where needed) and poetry. Cliburn deserved his place in the Philips series when that label issued CD sets of the 100 greatest pianists of the 20th century. His comet blazed too briefly, but it gave off dazzling light and heat while he was in flight.

 

 Yekwon Sunwoo

 The 2017 Cliburn winner plays Thursday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m. in Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Avenue, in the final outing of Charlotte Concerts’ 2017-18 season.

 To learn more about that show, go here.

 To see videos from his Cliburn-winning performances or hear him talk about music, go here.

FEBRUARY 23, 2018   I