Famed concert pianist Van Cliburn died earlier this week prompting an abundance of posthumous tributes and a flood of memories from those who were fortunate to see him perform. I was among those lucky thousands who heard him play in person.
Vam Cliburn came to my hometown in 1970 when he was 35 years old. He had won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow just eight years earlier, at age 23 and instantly became an American hero. He returned home to a ticker tape parade in New York, the first ever given for a musician, then began crisscrossing the country in a concert career that lasted until 1978 when he retired from the stage.
Everywhere he appeared, the music-loving American public fell in love with him. As Anthony Tommasini writes in the New York Times: “Every American town with a community concert series wanted him to come play a recital.” My hometown was no exception. He played in the largest hall in the town–the nearly 1,600-seat Municipal Auditorium. Although I can’t be certain, I’ll bet every seat in the house was filled. I know I occupied one of them.
Looking back, I am somewhat amazed that a musician on his stature performed in my small town of nearly 14,000. Having served on the board of Bellingham’s Mount Baker Theatre, I am very familiar with what it takes to book an artist of that caliber. Perhaps it was different in those days but I suspect some local philanthropist very generously donated his artist fee
It was worth every penny for those of us who went. In addition to the evening performance, he gave a special afternoon recital for the junior high school students. Imagine how many kids he may have introduced to classical music for the first time. Or, like me, inspired to pursue their musical studies in college. After his evening performance, I, along with some other young admirers, met him backstage. He was so tall and lanky, and his hands were so large it was a wonder he could play some of the delicate passages he did without his long fingers getting in the way. He graciously posed for photos (I have one), signed autographs and offered words of encouragement to young, aspiring pianists.
I was so taken with Van Cliburn’s amazing playing that when he won the Tchaikovsky competition, I was moved to write an editorial for my little ‘neighborhood’ newsletter entitled: Why I Want to be a Concert Pianist. That was a dream that never quite materialized (I didn’t have nearly the talent it takes to reach that level). But I did continue to study piano as a music major in college.
Over the years, I have become personal friends with other professional concert pianists. In particular, my friend Barbara Nissman whom I once photographed when she was in residency at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Barbara too was inspired by Van Cliburn and later when she had a career of her own as a concert pianist, met him upon occasion. “Van truly inspired all of us,” she says. “I remember hearing him in high school. sitting at the top of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and after he played, said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do!!’
“He was the sweetest guy,” she recalls. “I was always amazed that every time I saw him, he remembered my name. And look what he did for music even though he didn’t continue to play. He didn’t have to. Not many “icons” like him around! What a great loss.” No doubt the impact he had influenced Nissman in her own work with young audiences.
It’s been my pleasure to photograph many young pianists here in Bellingham either for a senior portrait or the Mount Baker Youth Symphony. Some of them have gone on to study music and become professional musicians as well.
While someone like Van Cliburn only comes along once in great while, you never know who is going to be inspired by a concert like the one he gave that day in my hometown and who might emerge as the next talented concert pianist of a new generation.
For more about pianist Barbara Nissman, visit her website at: http://www.barbaranissman.com/#!