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No Vaughan Williams tonight. This diary will indeed be a memorial to Van Cliburn, an American pianist who might have had a wonderful career had celebrity and the Cold War not found him exactly at the same time. Famed for his playing of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, he was seemingly unable because of the crush of fame to develop his interpretive talents beyond the material he played in the Soviet Union, because not even the Russian audience wanted to hear him playing anything beside the pieces he played at the first Tchaikovsky competition.

So a memorial to Cliburn and a meditation on the cold war and the occasionally corrosive effects of celebrity and the closet (yes, like many other famous male keyboard players). It counts as classical music because I won't be playing anything else, and even that will be limited because what people are posting at youtube to mourn his passing are complete works, not movements, not pieces, and even the movements and pieces may not look like most of the videos you find in diaries like this.

Below the great orange bowrest, please, and here is your memorial program.

My text today will be the obituary written by Anthony Tommasini for the New York Times, and, since I've taught both celebrity and the Cold War, I'll riff on what Tommasini has to say enough to keep the whole thing within fair use guidelines.

He gets RIGHT to the issue:

Hailing from Texas, Mr. Cliburn was a tall, lanky 23-year-old when he clinched the gold medal in the inaugural year of the Tchaikovsky competition. The feat, in Moscow, was viewed as an American triumph over the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. He became a cultural celebrity of pop-star dimensions and brought overdue attention to the musical assets of his native land.
Cold War triumph, cultural celebrity, pop-star dimensions. I don't know if ANYONE could have stood up to that trifecta of expectations.

It's not as if people didn't know he was talented already. In 1954, at the age of 19, he won the Leventritt Foundation award, which provided him with debuts with five major American orchestras. This award wasn't given every year either; no Leventritts were given between 1971 and 1981. As Tommasini notes, his debut piece with the New York Philharmonic with Dmitri Mitropoulos was Tchaikovsky 1. This was the piece which cemented his win in Moscow.

And about that. Max Frankel, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow, had been allowed to cover all the rounds of the competition, and his coverage was read avidly in the power centers of the United States (the link is to the performance Cliburn gave as the winner of the competition). This was the First International Tchaikovsky competition, coming after the successful launch of the Sputnik, and it was supposed to provide proof of the Soviet Union's cultural superiority. A Russian was supposed to win it, but Cliburn was just too talented. Stuart Isacoff writes, in A Natural History of the Piano, that Sviatoslav Richter, the greatest of living Russian pianists, gave Cliburn 100 points when the maximum was 25. The pianist Emil Gilels and the composer Dmitri Kabalevsky were equally enthusiastic, and Nikita Khrushchev himself gave Cliburn the award. We shouldn't be surprised. Between the Leventritt and the Tchaikovsky, Cliburn studied with Rosina Lhevinne at Juilliard, which made him an heir to the Russian tradition.

And here's how Time Magazine interpreted the win.

"Conquered." Well, Cold WAR. Now before we proceed we can listen to music.  Here is the first movement (it's from a playlist; it's in two parts but it seques into the second part itself and it might end up running into the whole thing) of Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto #1. Kiril Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic.

Virtuosic, absolutely, and I think it would be not just churlish but disrespectful to give you someone else playing with another conductor. I think that's whatever is wrong with this performance is Kondrashin's fault. So here we have Cliburn playing Rachmaninov with a much better conductor. From Piano Concerto #2, Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The PURITY! The FLUENCY! And note - reel-to-reel and here's the title:Van Cliburn-Fritz Reiner-RACHMANINOFF CONCERTO N2-отрывок- (Yes, Russian. In Cyrillic). Better sound, better everything.

And here's the first ten minutes of the first movement of Rachmaninoff 3. We're back in Moscow in 1958 for this. It appears to be conductor-proof. Just ravishing.

And that's what he was asked to play, and to play, and to play, and to play. It's too bad, because here he is from the late 1960s playing Debussy with great delicacy and charm. Reflets dans l'eau, from Images, Book I.

Tommasini again.

But if the Tchaikovsky competition represented Mr. Cliburn’s breakthrough, it also turned out to be his undoing. Relying inordinately on his keen musical instincts, he was not an especially probing artist, and his growth was stalled by his early success. Audiences everywhere wanted to hear him in his prizewinning pieces, the Tchaikovsky First Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Third. Every American town with a community concert series wanted him to come play a recital.
The Reiner collaboration was probably a result of the Leventritt.

So at 24, Cliburn began to burn out. Worse, as he expanded into material he had learned after the competition, the results weren't good.

Yet as early as 1959 his attempts to broaden his repertory were not well received. That year, for a New York Philharmonic benefit concert at Carnegie Hall conducted by Bernstein, Mr. Cliburn played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25, the Schumann Concerto and the Prokofiev Third Concerto. Howard Taubman, reviewing the program in The Times, called the Mozart performance “almost a total disappointment.” Only the Prokofiev was successful, he wrote, praising the brashness, exuberance and crispness of the playing.
The Prokofiev he had prepared with Mitropoulos as part of his Leventritt award. In the Washington Post, Tim Page calls what happened to Cliburn "deterioration" and cites the New Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians
"From the mid-1960s, it seemed he could not cope with the loss of freshness,” Michael Steinberg wrote. “His repertory was restricted; his playing, always guided primarily by intuition, took on affectations and the sound itself became harsher.”
Cliburn, however, was able to make lemonade out of the lemons fame and celebrity had thrown at him. He became the titular sponsor of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, which started in 1962. He continued to play until 1978, when he retired from concert performance. And then we get to the TMZ portion of this, which you can go to the obituary to learn about. It's a palimony suit.  You could tell that Cliburn was embarrassed by it. And youtube has a clip up sponsored by the Wall Street Journal that gives you 1:17 of Cliburn performing, the last :20 of which shows him playing the National Anthem in 2010 at Jerry Jones's football palace in Arlington, Texas.

Everybody I knew had the recording of Cliburn playing Tchaikovsky 1. Moscow was a really big deal, and it's too bad that the reaction to Cliburn's victory had the effect of derailing a promising career. Rest in peace, Van.

Fri Mar 01, 2013 at 6:57 AM PT: Thanks, Community Spotlight!

Originally posted to Dave in Northridge on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 04:39 PM PST.

Also republished by An Ear for Music, DKOMA, Remembering LGBT History, and Community Spotlight.

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