February 28, 2013


In Search of Van Cliburn (PRUDENCE MACKINTOSH, FEBRUARY 28, 2013, Texas Monthly)

Van Cliburn was, of course, a world-renowned musician, a piano prodigy who vaulted to international stardom at age 23 when he won, against all odds, the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1958. No one had expected the Russians, who had recently launched Sputnik, to give the prize to an American, but Van was clearly the popular favorite. His playing of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto in D Minor brought the audience to its feet for an eight-minute ovation, according to Russians who were present. Even the judges were overcome. "Slava Richter was crying," recalled one. Emil Gilels, another judge, breached the rules of the competition by leading Cliburn back onstage for a second bow.

After much deliberation, Richter and Gilels nervously took the prominent jury's final vote to the politburo, the cultural minister, and finally the new premier, Khrushchev. The premier asked, "Is [Cliburn] the best?" The cultural minister replied, "Yes, he is the best." So Khrushchev said, "In this case, give him the first prize." The ticker-tape parade in New York upon Van's return to the U.S. remains the stuff of legends, and as almost every obituary published since his death yesterday at age 78 points out, his artistry was credited with helping to thaw the Cold War.

But amid all that hoopla and Russian grandeur, Van was also a Texan, a Southerner, a Baptist, a patriot who began each concert with the "Star-Spangled Banner," a musical idealist, and a man who loved his parents, his childhood friends, and black-eyed peas as much as I do. We both grew up in East Texas behind the Pine Curtain--he in Kilgore and I in Texarkana--so I always knew that if we met, we'd have more to chat about than my own devotion to the piano, challenged though it is by my perpetual intermediate level.

When Van revealed late last summer that he was suffering from advanced bone cancer, I worried that the conversation with him I often daydreamed about while listening to his lush and near-perfect recordings might never take place. I called his official gatekeepers at the Van Cliburn Foundation to see if I might visit him at his home in Fort Worth's Westover Hills. The director's reply was swift: "That will not be possible." I wasn't surprised. I'm from Dallas, and my name wasn't going to pop up on their big-donor database. I retreated, found Van's address, and sent him a letter that stopped just short of claiming that I was blood kin.

When I didn't hear back, I thought I'd meet Van another way. I headed to the library, where I checked out Chicago music critic Howard Reich's 1993 biography of him, as well as all of his recordings that I didn't already own. I read all of the archived newspaper and magazine articles about him and watched every YouTube video clip I could find featuring the six-foot-four virtuoso. Then, because I know firsthand how one can never shake the imprint of East Texas, I headed to Kilgore.

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Posted by at February 28, 2013 9:01 PM

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