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Pianist Van Cliburn, Dead at 78

Texas boy who beat the Soviets at their own game, gay man who was a lifetime Baptist.

Charlie Martin


February 28, 2013 - 2:56 pm

Picked this up from the Washington Post:

Cliburn was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La., the son of oilman Harvey Cliburn Sr. and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. At age 3, he began studying piano with his mother, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with a pupil of the great 19th century Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt.

The family moved back to Kilgore within a few years of his birth.

Cliburn won his first Texas competition when he was 12, and two years later he played in Carnegie Hall as the winner of the National Music Festival Award.

My family had a music store when I was growing up, and Van Cliburn was generally considered a demigod at least by every piano teacher in the Southwest — the Texas boy who had beaten the Soviets at their own game, winning the First International Tchaikovsky Competition so decisively the Russians couldn’t deny it. I met him once when I was about 10, and vaguely recall that he seemed awfully young — he would have been about 36 — and that he seemed to have big hands.

He died of bone cancer in Fort Worth, where he made his home.

Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle

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I was a music major back in the early Seventies and was privileged to attend a performance given by Van Cliburn at my college. He would have been in his late thirties.

As a music major on an instrument other than piano, the threat of failing my piano jury and not getting my degree loomed over me throughout my stay at Penn State. So I took piano lessons from one of the grad assistants -- one of the less distinguished ones, unfortunately, but that made us even, as I was certainly one of the less distinguished students. I do remember that she bad-mouthed Van Cliburn via piannissimo praise, the preferred defamatory gambit of music students. Nobody could speak ill of Cliburn's talent, but the word on the studio floor was that he was "selling out", booking too many concerts, which kept him from putting in the preparation necessary to churn out great performances.

Well, sorry, but who can blame him? As Jerry Reed sang, when you're hot, you're hot, and Cliburn was hotter than Elvis. But my piano teacher, amidst the cattiness, let loose an interesting comment: allegedly, Cliburn would often be so unprepared as to memorize piano scores he had never actually played on the airplane en route to his gig. The nerve.

The remark had exactly the opposite effect on me that was intended. I could not imagine the level of genius it would take to be able to memorize a piano score that I had never played, or the level of showmanship it would take to pull it off. My respect for Cliburn went up, not down.

And yes, even several rows back, one could see what enormous hands Cliburn had. You don't have to have huge hands to be a great pianist (e.g., Alicia de Larrocha), but it has to help. I played in the orchestra once accompanying Leon Bates (back when he and I were both young) performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", and noticed that Mr. Bates was a smiling, handsome fellow who looked like he would have been as much in his element running a football through a tough defensive line as tickling the ivories in black tie. His style was similar to his mesomorphic build: large, muscular, commanding. Having big hands has to help, at some level.
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