As WQXR focuses on today’s rising young pianists in January, we also look back at some of the young lions of the past. On May 26, 1958, WQXR's Abram Chasins interviewed the Texan pianist Van Cliburn, just a few weeks after he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition.
The Tchaikovsky Competition, as legend has it, was the product of the Cold War, an attempt by the Soviets to claim their cultural dominance just as they had in the space race with the launch of the Sputnick satellite in 1957. After Cliburn took the first prize, he returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York, as well as international celebrity. His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 was the first classical recording to sell more than a million copies.
As Cliburn tells Chasins, he received a warm reception in Moscow from the Soviets, who enjoyed not only his playing of big romantic works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but also his version of a Mozart C-major Sonata.
Cliburn also talks about the potential to raise the classical music's visibility in American popular culture. “If I am the tool – or the incident – that will awaken the possibility of giving the possibility to give more ticker tape parades to musicians in the United States, this is wonderful, and for this, then I am happy.”
"I feel very, very grateful for," he adds. "I experienced the feeling in a small way that our movie idols experience. It was thrilling and at the same time scary because I very much feel responsibility."
Audio courtesy of NYPR Archives