Jed Distler’s Cliburn Blog No 16: My Dinner with Van

Friday, June 17, 2022

During a break in performances, our competition correspondent recalls meeting Van Cliburn

While performances take a short break at The Cliburn, I thought I’d share my memories of when I met Van Cliburn for the first and only time.

It was 1994. The pianist had announced that he would embark on his first major concert tour in 16 years. Cliburn had only played sporadically in public since 1978, the year he decided to take an ‘intermission’. He’d still make occasional appearances from time to time, like a White House state dinner, or he’d trot out his signature Tchaikovsky Concerto at a fund raiser. However, this time was different. Cliburn planned a series of concerts across the United States where he’d play not only the Tchaikovsky but also the Rachmaninov Third. The news took the piano world by surprise; after all, Cliburn wasn’t exactly a spring chicken. And given that he’d been out of the concert loop for years, would he have the stamina and technique to get through two huge concertos in one evening on a more-or-less regular basis? As it happened, he wound up dropping Rachmaninov from the tour, but that’s another story.

Anyway, to promote the tour and ‘reconnect’ with his public, Cliburn held autograph sessions at record stores (remember them?) and made himself available for a limited number of interviews. I had been writing for Piano Today magazine when my editor Stuart Isacoff asked if I was willing to meet Cliburn. I had heard strange stories from fellow writers about their close Cliburn encounters. One wrote that ‘you don’t interview Cliburn, you experience him’. Nevertheless, I accepted the challenge. I decided to approach Cliburn musician to musician, rather than journalist to celebrity. Maybe the resultant conversation would appeal to Piano Today subscribers. 

We set a date to meet for a private interview in Cliburn’s penthouse suite at New York’s Plaza Hotel. I arrived in the lobby with my cassette recorder in tow and my list of questions at the ready. ‘Mr. Cliburn will be down to meet you shortly’, said the concierge. The pianist showed up with an entourage that included a few Van Cliburn Foundation board members. The first thing he said to me was not hello, but ‘Will you join us for dinner?’. Before I could answer, we were led into the overpriced Oak Room. Cliburn took his place at the head of the table, and I sat to his left. To my surprise, a rather pushy journalist from a rival music publication showed up, apparently she also had scheduled an interview! The Cliburn Foundation folks filled out the seats, while a rather morose middle-aged man sat at the other end of the table, saying nothing all night. So much for my exclusive one-to-one interview.

Undaunted, I tried to engage Cliburn in piano talk. Why did you chose this ossia passage in the Brahms First Concerto? How did you get your ideas about such and such concerto to jibe with Fritz Reiner? You heard Vladimir Sofronitsky in Russia – what were his distinctive qualities as a pianist? Cliburn politely evaded my questions. After a while, he called a ‘time out’, then turned his attention to the other journalist, who basically genuflected. My inexperience as a professional interviewer truly hit home.

Still, I did manage one final question: ‘At this point in your life, what new repertoire do you look forward to playing?’. This time Cliburn answered frankly. He said that when he was starting out, he went through a lot of repertoire, and then decided exactly what he wanted to play. When the subject of live archival recordings from the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition came up, Cliburn asked, ‘Was my Taneyev Prelude & Fugue recorded? I’d do anything to get a copy’. I told him I’d do my best to find one.

I’m still looking for it.

To watch videos from this year's competition, visit the Cliburn International Piano Competition website: cliburn.org

Gramophone is a Media Partner of The Cliburn International Piano Competition

 

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