Van Cliburn Talks Fame, Audiences and Self-Doubt at NYPL

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - 10:00 PM

In advance of the auction of some of his possessions at Christie’s on Thursday, Van Cliburn was the guest of honor for a talk on Tuesday night at the New York Public Library. 

The 77-year-old Texas-born piano legend is downscaling at the moment, preparing to sell 166 objects, including the Russian silver, English furniture and personal accessories that he gathered from his world travels. The process has evidently put him in a more reflective mood, eager to part with his memories as well as his mementos.

The 90-minute interview began as NYPL director of programs Paul Holdengräber asked Cliburn about his childhood and especially his piano teacher mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan (the 1912 Steinway piano he inherited from her is to be included in Thursday’s auction). 

The pianist talked about how his mother encouraged him from an early age to listen to recordings of opera singers. “It’s amazing how to make a percussion instrument like the piano, a lyrical instrument, and that’s the thrust of what my mother used to tell me.” He remembered attending a performance of Carmen at age four and later hearing the American pianist William Kapell at Lewisohn Stadium in New York, which stoked his passion for the piano.

The audience was shown video footage from Cliburn's winning performance at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, after which Cold War America embraced the 23-year-old like a rock star. Cliburn recalled being paid equally in rubles and dollars, half of which he donated to the City of New York upon receiving a ticker tape parade.

Cliburn remembered the Moscow audiences, who were "very educated" about classical music, though he knew better than to discuss politics with them.

A charming conversationalist, Cliburn is known to reveal few secrets about what it felt like to be a folk hero or the immense pressure he shouldered during his glory years. Indeed, he deflected some of Holdengräber's more probing questions with the meandering tales of a practiced raconteur.

But the evening also contained some unexpectedly candid moments. After about 30 minutes, the pianist Joyce Yang, a silver medalist at the 2005 Van Cliburn Competition, came on stage to perform some Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

Suddenly, Cliburn choked up and was unable to continue talking, apparently overcome by Yang’s performance. A few minutes later Cliburn laughed and apologized, clarifying his response. “With great music, it’s so beyond any of us and you feel like you’ve been transported and somehow redeemed,” he said. "It's just so overwhelming.”

There were also moments of levity. Cliburn remembered playing a concert in Kansas City and having a backstage visitor at intermission: Harry Truman, the former president. “He sat down and said ‘I’m so thrilled that you’re going to be playing the Chopin sonata,’” said Cliburn. “I didn’t know it that well and said, ‘Sir, it’s not the sonata with the funeral march.’”

"He said, ‘I know very well what it is. It’s the sonata in B minor, Op. 58 — I had a terrible time in the development section of the first movement," continued Cliburn. "I thought, I should just leave and go out and call a taxi. I have to go out in front of Mr. Truman and play this in front him who knows every note.”

While Cliburn electrified the classical music world during the late 1950s and much of the 60s, his success was hard-won and some critics believe the stress took his toll on his playing. By the late 1970s he mostly withdrew from the concert stage. In recent decades he has been active with his foundation and on the social circuit in his hometown of Fort Worth.

At one point in the interview Cliburn opened up about the pressures of fame. "I was on the stage and taking another curtain call and thinking ‘oh I should have done this in the second movement, and this in the third movement,'" he recalled, of one performance in the 1960s. "It's terrible. It’s really awful. You’re wanting it to be so perfect.”

Cliburn was ultimately philosophical about his many career turns. Referring to the surrounding library, but also the personal art objects that will be being auctioned off he said, “All of us are only the caretakers for this. They will live for longer than any of us will.”


Photo by Jori Klein

Tags:

More in:

Comments [6]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

ALL THE WORLD ADMIRED VAN CLIBURN FOR HIS GREAT TALENT AND HIS WARM OUTGOING PERSONA. A JUILLIARD ALUM MYSELF BEFORE HIS LANDMARK TSCHAIKOWSKY TRIUMPH, I, WITH HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS, WATCHED HIS TICKER TAPE PARADE AND MY MOM , BROTHER DR. BEN LANE, AND I ATTENDED HIS CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT AND SPOKE WITH HIM AFTERWARDS BACKSTAGE. THAT TALL , LANKY HANDSOME TEXAN DID MORE FOR A FRIENDLIER RELATIONSHIP WITH THE RUSSIANS THAN ANY POLITICIAN. THE COLD WAR THREATENING PEACE WAS MADE LESS MENACING. R.I.P. VAN CLIBURN. THE WORLD MOURNS YOUR PASSING.

Feb. 28 2013 09:16 AM
Neil Schnall

The Wikipedia entry for Van Cliburn lists his birthplace as Shreveport, Louisiana. Further states that his family moved to Texas when he was age 6.

May. 21 2012 12:27 PM
toni tynan from Greenwich, CT

I was introduced to Van Cliburn by my husband, a devoted follower of classical music who took me to Van Cliburn's concert in New York following his victory in Russia, in New York City over 40 years ago which I recall was held outside in upper Manhattan, (possibly Central Park)...From that day forward we attended every Van Cliburn we could afford which was held in New York remaining totally loyal to him. When I read this wonderful review, I wish I could have been thre and able to bid for even a small memento of this wondwerful genius who brought so much happiness and appreciation for classical music to us around the world...Since we attended that first Van Cliburn Concert we continued to enjoy reading reviews of Van Clibun's concerts around the world.... In our view Van Cliburn is unquestionably the most talented, greatest pianist in the world.... I wish him continued good health and happiness always and will never forget him and am so grateful for the joy and happiness he provided us during many difficult years in our lives...my husband who was a devoted listener to classical music every day of his life lost his battle with cancer in 2000 at age 60 and I am so appreciative he introduced me to Van Cliburn at one of earliest concerts follwing his success in Russia which made me listen to classical music from that day forward...I wish Van Cliburn continued good health, joy and happiness for inspiring all of us with his enormous talent... as well as his enormous contribution to classical music...Thank you for this wonderful review of Van Cliburn at this time in his life...Sincerely, Toni Tynan, Greenwich, Connecticut...

May. 21 2012 10:16 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

I am a JUILLIARD alumnus. How thrilled we fellow alimni were to hear his, a fellow JUILLIARD alumnus, triumph against all odds at the Moscow competition. I was alongside the PARADE ROUTE in New York City when Americans welcomed home our hero. We had precious little to celebrate in those COLD WAR days. In a sense, the economies of the world today appear equally dismal. Single handedly musicians with spectacular talent can close the gap between opposing political forces. The Beattles conquered the hearts and souls of Russian youth. Maestri BARENBOIM and MEHTA have conducted performances, with Middle East instrumentalists of religious backgrounds in conflict, within the HOLY LAND and demonstrated that one can live and work peacefully and productively, although their religions and/or creeds may be aggressively partisan. I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor, the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where all the roles of Wagner and Shakespeare are coached, and an opera composer of “Shakespeare” and “The Political Shakespeare." I have sung, and commercially recorded LIVE for Valhalla Records CDs four main hall, Isaac Stern Auditorium, solo concerts, three of them three hours long.

May. 16 2012 05:51 PM
Shermy from NY NY

I attended the conversation last night, it was riveting! I weeped along with him! I have never experienced such a love a beauty from a human being, it was really an honor to be there and experience that profound emotion and come away with such joy. He is the ultimate artist!

May. 16 2012 01:55 PM
Victoria Loudis from Little Neck,NY

Wow, does this make me feel old! I can remember when Van Cliburn won in Moscow. Life Magazine kept us informed and even we preteens (who didn't have the Beetles yet), could enjoy a little vicarious fame.
It took me years to come to classical music which is now one of the joys of my life. But I'd like to think Mr. Cliburn helped make that happen. Thank you.

May. 16 2012 12:06 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 

 

 

 

 

 

Sponsored

About WQXR Blog

Engage and interact with the WQXR hosts online.

Feeds