Thursday, February 28, 2013

Van Cliburn and the Power of Music

AP photo, Sergey Ponomorev.  We willl always have his music..
One of my favorite pianist, Van Cliburn, just died.   I remember when he won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958.  I was in high school.  He was only 23 years old.  Just out of Julliard. What a star!

I was a senior at Harley School in Rochester, NY, taking piano lessons at  the Eastman School of Music. So was my sister Andy, who had real talent.

 Nikita Khrushchev was president of the Soviet Union and it was the height of the “Cold War.”  Khrushchev  was yet to give his speech  to the Communist Party congress in 1960 that denounced the legacy of Stalin, and set off an explosive whirlwind of change.  Tom Smith wrote about the horrendous consequences of that speech in his book “The Secret Speech,” a powerful story about betrayal and transformation that resonates to this day. America was on edge at the time, post-Sputnik, and remained so well into the era of Perestroika that emerged in the late 1980s.  

Van Cliburn became a sort of  poster child for rapproachment between the US and Russia. Time magazine called him "The Texan who conquered Russia."   How thrilling that he could play the Tchaikovsky like a true Russian.  In a way, you could say he was our first Peace Corps Volunteer to the Soviet Union,  before the Peace Corps existed. He grew to love the Russian people, as well as its incredibly rich culture.  And they loved him.  It opened so many doors, raised so many questions about our politics and worldview.  

That’s the time when my mom began collecting his records, beginning with the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto record, which I think sold millions and made Van Cliburn a cultural hero.  Some of my friends remember that album, and the ticker tape parade in New York.

I remember that our house was always filled with the sounds of classical music, including my mom practicing  arias from the Opera repertoire. I called her "My Madama Butterfly." .We had many of  Van Cliburn’s recordings. Van Cliburn playing the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto, incredibly complex and beautiful. Van Cliburn playing Grieg, Prokofiev, Schumann and Beethovan.  All my favorites.

“Classical music was so important to our generation growing up, wasn't it?" my friend Alice, remembering Van Cliburn, posted on facebook. 

Yes, and it made our lives richer, deeper, and I think more open to universal understanding. It wasn't politics that mattered; it wasn't war that brought peace.  It was art and the humanities.  The universal language of culture.  Van Cliburn was among those who taught us that.  . . 
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