PIANIST VAN CLIBURN’S HAIR HAS GRAYed, and his face has filled oui, but he is a remarkably youthful-looking 62. His tall figure is easily spotted in crowds, his beautiful baritone voice and hearty laugh instantly recognizable. He enters rooms with the chest-forward walk of a friendly man eager to engage people. He speaks with the flamboyant deliberation of a man whose mind, body and life have been dedicated to classical works of high Romance. He is given to calling people “darling” and “precious” and sprinkling quotes by Plato through his conversations. He often leans toward his listener, as if physical closeness will enable him to better communicate his passionate love of his work.
Cliburn is Fort Worth’s resident living legend, an arrangement that benefits both man and city. Because of the world-famous piano competition that bears Cliburn’s name, the city receives more than a little international fame, especially every four years during the competition. Cliburn’s warm generosity with his time, his money and his talent enhances the city’s quality of life. In return. Fort Worth gives Cliburn affection, honor and respect-and leaves him alone to live his life as he wants.
Fort Worth didn’t even blink last year when the story hit the papers that Cliburn’s longtime companion. Tom Zaremba. was suing him for millions in “palimony” and accusing Cliburn of exposing him to AIDS. Zaremba claimed Clibum owed him the money after their 17-year “professional and personal relationship.”
Clibum”s friends and admirers generally decline to discuss Zaremba, the suit or Cliburn’s private life. They express regret that such a personal issue became so public but will say little more.
Indeed, the city’s powerful business community and its social elite-the well-heeled and the well-connected-quietly have rallied around Cliburn, almost daring anyone to be tacky.
Because every four years, when the Van Clibum International Piano Competition gears up and Cowtown goes uptown. Fort Worth gels reminded all over again why it pays to be nice to Van Cliburn.
This year, from May 23 to June 8. Fort Worth will once again be the epicenter of the world of classical piano music. The Cliburn competition is the biggest of its kind, both in tenus of prizes and visibility.
The Clibum screening jury listened to performances by applicants from 33 countries before selecting 35 finalists. These 35 will compete for the gold medal, a prize that includes a cash award of $20,001). a debut recital at Carnegie Hail, a CD recording and a management contract with two years of concert and tour bookings. The second- and third-place medalists also will receive recitals, management, recordings and cash.
More than 30 million people worldwide will see a PBS documentary about the competition. Local audiences will be saturated with beautiful music as 35 young musicians from 18 countries play with enough passion, precision and talent to make their dreams come true-or not.
Actually, there will be two competitions going on in Fort Worth-the one among the young pianists and the one among the social set. Participants in the Cliburn competition will be given a chance at an incredible boost to their careers. Participants in the Fort Worth social set will be given a chance to improve their standing among the Fort Worth aristocracy.
The symbiotic relationship between high art and high society is one of the main reasons the Cliburn competition is the object of both high regard and much scorn.
Critics seem to waver between marveling at the lavish Fort Wort!) hospitality and its cosseting of contestants, and holding it up as “proof that the Cliburn somehow isn’t as “serious” as other international competitions. If the Cliburn competition were held in, say, New York, says Van Cliburn Foundation chairwoman Alann Sampson, East Coast-based critics would automatically take it more seriously. But she also believes that if the Cliburn were held somewhere else, it would be a totally different animal.
“It wouldn’t have that certain hospitality cachet that it has,” says Sampson. “There is something rather unique about what happens in Fort Worth.”
To understand what that something is, one must know something about the man, his younger, mythic self-and one must know something about the city in which the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was born.
ON OCT. 5,1957, THE COLD WAR TOOK a dramatic turn when the Russians launched Sputnik, the first satellite to dart across the heavens, and America suddenly found itself a distant second in the race for space. Some two months later. Moscow announced rather condescendingly that Americans would be invited to compete in the first Tchaikovsky International Competition.
But who in America was capable of taking on the Russians in an area in which they excelled-the Romantic musical literature of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. His teachers at Juilliard decided on Van Cliburn, largely because of his love of Russia and its music and his excellence in the Russian Romantic piano literature that would be stressed at the competition.
And so. with his piano as his weapon, the tall, lanky 23-year-old from Kilgore went to battle in the Cold War. All odds seemed against him. Nearly all the competition jurors were from Soviet bloc countries. No one believed the Soviet leadership would tolerate, anyone but a Russian winning.
But in addition to his technical skills. Cliburn was armed with a naive trust in the goodness of people and a genuine love of the Russian people and their musical heritage. All of this flowed through his fingertips into his music.
When Cliburn played, the sophisticated Russian audience went berserk. News accounts at the time reported that the audience showered him with flowers. Women wept. Soldiers were called in to restore order as pandemonium erupted outside the Moscow Conservatory. In the eyes of the people, he clearly was the winner.
Bui give first prize to an American?
It was a decision that had to go all the way to the top in Russia, according to Richard Rodzinski, executive director of the Van Cliburn Foundation.
“The Tchaikovsky was set up as a propaganda thing. It was going to show the level of Russian achievement and so forth. When it emerged very quickly that in this first Tchaikovsky, a Russian was not going to win but looked like it was an American, the whole jury, which consisted of real luminaries in the Soviet music circles, was i hauled into the office of a fierce administrator of culture, a terror of a lady, and she said, ’The hell with it. This is not going to happen.
The jurors stood firm, Rodzinski says, even though this minister had the power to send them all to Siberia. Finally, she offered a compromise-a tie between a Russian and Cliburn. But again, the jurors stood their ground, saying Cliburn was too clearly the best for them to compromise.”
So she actually went to Khrushchev,” says Rodzinski. “Khrushchev said, ’OK, who’s the best?’ And she says, ’Well, they seem to say it’s this Texan.” And he says, ’Well, let the Texan win.’ “
When the verdict was announced, a near riot of joy broke out. The New York Times picked up the story and ran a page-one four-column headline, “U.S. Pianist, 23, Wins Soviet Contest.”
Overnight, Van Cliburn was an American hero of mythic proportions, described in Variety as a “musical Lindbergh.” Time described him as “the most famous pianist since Faderewski.” He was given a ticker-tape parade, received at the White House, appeared on “The Steve Allen Show,” Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person” and on the quiz show “What’s My Line?” His income soared, and so did the number of his concert bookings.
People reacted to him as teenagers reacted to Elvis Presley. He was a superstar before there was a name for such phenomena. His 1958 RCA Victor recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 went platinum, the first album of classical music to sell more than a million copies.
But this “overnight success” had been playing concerts since his debut with the Houston Symphony at the age of 12. His family’s life had revolved around young Van and his music, and this did not end when he reached adulthood.
In 1962, Cliburn’s manager, the legendary Sol Hurok, hired Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn to be Van’s road manager. With an apartment in New York as a base, mother and son traveled all over the world together as Cliburn played concerts and recorded albums. Cliburn was making a lot of money, enjoying the kind of lucrative career most classical pianists can only dream about.
Then, (he sensitive Cliburn suffered two crushing blows: the 1974 death of his much-loved father, followed by the unexpected demise of Hurok. By 1978, Cliburn had played himself into physical and spiritual exhaustion. He was 43 years old.
He never formally retired. He simply slopped taking on engagements-for 11 years.
“The life of a musician is the most solitary life,” Cliburn said in a 1989 Time magazine interview on the occasion of his return to the concert stage. “Sometimes I did find it very difficult,”
But his absence simply enhanced the myth. And the popular media’s representation of him as a recluse simply wasn’t true. Cliburn and his mother lived a satisfying, busy life in a two-floor suite at the Salisbury Hotel in New York. He went frequently to the ballet, the opera, out to dinner.
In 1986, mother and son moved to Fort Worth. buying the Kay Kimbell mansion in Old Westover Hills, Fort Worth’s most prestigious neighborhood. In a 1987 interview, Cliburn made a remark he would repeat frequently in subsequent years: “I always said that I was going to work at the beginning of my life and at the end of it, but that I was going to take the middle off. And 1 must say that I’m enjoying it. When I wake up, I feel like I did when 1 was 18. In fact. 1 feel better.”
“Van Time” quickly became famous in Fort Worth. He generally wakes up around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. He, his mother and Zaremba were notorious for beginning their days late in the afternoon and staying up all night. Because concert pianists start their workdays with an 8 p.m. showtime and usually can’t get to sleep until the wee hours of the morning, being a night creature was a pattern set early for Cliburn.
By the time Cliburn moved to Fort Worth, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was already 24 years old.
The idea for the competition itself was born in 1958 at a dinner in Fort Worth honoring Mrs. Cliburn. Dr. Id Allison, founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, stood up and announced that he was holding a first prize check of $10,000 for the winner of a future international piano competition he wanted named after “Rildia Bee’s little boy, Van.”
Although Van and his mother never thought anything would come of it, they didn’t reckon on the drive of a strong-willed Fort Worth woman named Grace Ward Lankford. Lankford, who had been working on plans for a regional piano competition, immediately saw the possibilities of combining forces with Dr. Allison.
He hadn’t specified where the competition should be, and most people assumed it would take place in New York City. But to Lankford, president of the Fort Worth Piano Teachers Forum, there was no other possible location but Fort Worth,
She persuaded the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce to pony up another $ 10,000, convinced Texas Christian University to co-sponsor the competition and bullied the local papers unmercifully for publicity.
Lankford also corralled lots of women- mostly piano teachers, students and young matrons-to work for free, and thus the original $70,000 budget stretched a long way. One of these women had the idea to house the competitors in private homes. Originally a decision driven by economics, it quickly became a decision driven by results-the young competitors loved the warm hospitality, the pampering by their host families, the luxury in which they lived.
Because the contestants required excellent instruments on which to practice, this arrangement had one other unintended consequence: Fort Worth is reputed to have more grand pianos per capita than any other city its size.
“I must say to you that Fort Worth Is an amazing place. 1 have never seen so many excellent pianos in so many homes.” Cliburn says with a laugh. Cliburn himself is reported to have 15 pianos in his home.
The first Cliburn competition in 1962 was described by Joseph Horowitz in his book, The Ivory Trade, as “a mom-and-pop show of Internationa] scope, a mélange of amateur and professional, courtesy and bravado, sophistication and innocence”- not a bad description of Fort Worth itself.
Lankford lived to see her brainchild i become a reality, but died the next year. The competition cooked along, buoyed by the I glamour of the Cliburn name and the presence of Russian competitors-which no other American music competition could boast. But after the medals were awarded, . that was about it. The winners were not suddenly endowed with great careers or fame.
Enter Martha Rowan Hyder,
Hyder’s three children were taking piano from Lankford. who put Hyder on the original Cliburn committee. To say she is a strong woman is to drastically understate the obvious. Hyder’s family had oil money, and she had a vision. It proved a potent combination.
What Hyder understood was that high culture could lure high society, with a result thai would benefit both. Suddenly, the ranks of volunteers had fewer piano teachers and more young wives of up-and-coming West Siders. Prominent society names began appearing.
But Hyder wasn’t simply trying to make the cover of Town and Country. She knew thai if the winners of the Cliburn competition were to achieve great careers, they had to be great pianists, the best. She also understood that the winner had to be managed. A medal without a career was cold comfort in the world of classical music.
Hyder set out to lobby Europe, Russia, anywhere potential medal winners might be lurking. There was a personal element driving all this as well: The Hyder family had played host to Russian competitor Vladimir Viardo in the 1973 competition. They took possession of him as only the Hyders could. When Viardo won, Hyder persuaded the Russians to allow him to do a U.S. concert tour. She visited the musical capitals of Europe, bullying impresarios and concertmasters to present the Cliburn medalist. She got national television coverage of the competition on PBS.
Never merely a society matron dallying in the finer arts, Hyder saw classical music as an endangered species; she visualized Fort Worth as one place to “grow” an audience for such music.
Despite the intimidating presence of characters like Martha Hyder. the Cliburn has no shortage of volunteers. Four years ago, the competition had 683 volunteers. Already this year, the Cliburn staff is expecting more than 600.
And this is where the second competition kicks in-the social Cliburn competition. One must work one’s way up the volunteer ladder. Once a person gets “inside,” there are different levels of prestige. Giving a party carries prestige. Being a host family carries even more.
This is not to imply that all volunteers at the Cliburn are interested only in social advancement. Far from it. The dollar value of all this free work is estimated by the staff at $ 1 million. To a huge degree, the success of the Giburn competition rests on its volunteer force, its community.
What the Cliburn has created in Fort Worth is a community filled with sophisticated people who truly appreciate classical music. Nearly 35 years of competitions have sown the seeds of audiences filled with educated classical music lovers.
“There is no other competition like the Cliburn,” said Mary Conner, who has worked both on staff and as a volunteer. “Some are trying to copy it, but you have to have this kind of built-in sense of community ownership to make it work. When Dallas wants something, they usually just go out and buy it, but you can’t just go out and buy a competition. Not with this level of community involvement.”
When Van Cliburn is asked what legacy he hopes the competition will leave Fort Worth, he sounds more like a city father than a piano virtuoso: “We have an incredibly knowledgeable audience here. And the more knowledgeable people you have in a city, well, it can only bring about more understanding, civility, cultivation. It’s a gift for our children.”