It’s a sad, uncertain Christmas for pianist Van Cliburn, who was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer late this year.
Musicians will remember him as the first winner of the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition.
That edition of the competition was significant for many things. It was an event intended to showcase the cultural superiority of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War era. It unfolded right after their successful Sputnik launching in October 1957.
As it turned out, the judges were clearly more impressed with the American pianist’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in the final round. The audience showed its agreement by giving him an eight-minute standing ovation.
But would that jury verdict sit well with the Soviet leadership?
Just to make sure the jury wouldn’t be in trouble, they were obliged to ask clearance from Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, who said, “Is the American pianist the best in that batch of finalists?”
The jury nodded, and the Soviet leader announced: “Then give him the prize.”
For the first time in the history of classical music in America, an American pianist was given a ticker-tape parade in New York, normally reserved for beauty queens and rock stars.
The 1958 Time Magazine cover story read: “The Texan who conquered Russia.”
For the record, a Filipino made history when Rowena Arrieta placed fifth in the seventh edition of the Tchaikovsky Competition in the mid-1980s.
Fourteen years after that New York ticker-tape parade, Cliburn was one of the visitors of Imelda Marcos when she was hospitalized after an assassin tried to kill her with a bolo during a speaking engagement in 1972.
The friendship between Imelda and the American pianist so blossomed that the latter agreed to give a fund-raising concert for the benefit of young talented Filipino musicians.
When Cliburn arrived in Manila in the early ’70s for the concert, the one who gave him the welcome bouquet at the airport was no other than Cecile Licad, Imelda Marcos’ favorite prodigy.
That Cliburn concert raised money for the Young Artists Foundation, which funded several aspiring musicians, among them Licad, Rowena Arrieta, Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz, the Bolipata brothers, and Noel Velasco.
In another fund-raising concert at the Araneta Coliseum with the Cultural Center of the Philippines Orchestra (now the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra), Cliburn played the Grieg concerto without rehearsal.
The pianist had been stuck in Leyte with Imelda and arrived in Manila just in time for the concert. CCP president Kasilag greeted Cliburn and Valencia backstage: “Amazing how this concerto went very well without a rehearsal!”
A few years later, in the young Licad’s first performance at Van Cliburn’s home state, Texas, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, the pianist’s mother, was so impressed she slipped $100 in the prodigy’s concert gown after her performance with the Forth Worth Symphony.
Forty-three years after Van Cliburn played at the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, it was Licad’s turn to play in the same venue in 2011, as soloist in the Brahms concerto with the Russian State Orchestra.
Licad said it was also the first time she set foot in the famous Tchaikovsky Hall where the likes of Otto Klemperer, Artur Rubenstein, Yasha Heifetz, Marian Anderson, Artur Honegger, Bela Bartok, David Oystrakh and Emil Gilels had performed.
“The Tchaikovsky Hall is simply incomparable when it comes to the sound,” she said. “This hall has everything an artist can ask for. The organizers care about you, and the musicians not just knew every note of the music but they also have a unique way of projecting the sound the best that you can think of. Their music-making is not just about power. They care a lot about the quality of sound. For this reason, this Moscow concert is simply heaven-sent.”
Even the international piano competition carrying Cliburn’s name has Filipino connections. Two Filipino musicians—the late conductor Luis Valencia and National Artist for Music Lucrecia Kasilag—were once invited to be in the jury.
So far, only one Filipino pianist made it in this competition: Iloilo-born Ma. Luis Lopez Vito, who placed fourth in the 1966 edition of the Van Cliburn Competition, with Romania’s sensational Radu Lupu as the First Prize winner.
Two of the top prizewinners, Brazilian Cristina Ortiz and American Steven de Groote, had performed at the CCP to great acclaim.
Born Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr., on July 12, 1934, the pianist entered Juilliard School at 17 and shared the stage with a Filipino pianist—Ernestina Crisologo—during the summer recital of 1949. Like Licad, Cliburn was also recipient of the Leventritt award, along with frequent Manila visitor Gary Graffman.
Reflecting on his 1958 musical triumph in a PBS interview, where the topic shifted to Time magazine describing him as the Texan who conquered Russia, Cliburn didn’t consider the event a big deal.
Said he: “If they appreciate what you did—I am so grateful, because the Russians were wonderful to me. They were such great audiences; I cannot begin to tell you. I didn’t conquer anything. As a matter of fact, they conquered my heart.”
By coincidence, Cliburn appeared many years ago in the cartoon “Iron Man,” playing himself in the episode “Silence My Companion, Death My Destination.”