The Mystery of Van Cliburn

Article excerpt

SOME DAY in the next few years you may hear a radio announcer introduce a new recording of "The Van Cliburn Piano Sonata" played, of course, by Van Cliburn.

Currently, though, it's unfinished, and until now, he has not talked about it publicly.

"I'm composing a piano sonata in three movements; it's fairly close to being finished," Cliburn said in a phone interview from his Fort Worth office. "It is in traditional sonata form and begins with an allegro movement. It's my musical thoughts. . . . The human voice is my great inspiration. A great singer teaches you how to phrase and breathe and how to project a melody line."

This should help clear up some of the mystery about what the reclusive Cliburn, who is single and lives with his 98-year-old mother, has been doing with his time. Until recently, he had given only seven concerts outside his home state of Texas since 1978, shortly after his father's death. Though he was the first classical music recording artist to "go" platinum, most of his CD releases have been from the 1970s or before.

Since 1962, he has managed the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, one of the most prestigious in the country - it's held every four years. The son of a Texas oilman, Cliburn is said to be a whiz at Texas real estate. He attends opera performances across the country, and his Fort Worth mansion is said to brim with books, including many poetry volumes.

Sunday evening's concert at the Fox Theatre marks the first time in 16 years Van Cliburn has played in St. Louis. He will play the same concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff that he played in the 1958 Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition, and he'll be here with the same band that backed him up at the contest - The Moscow Philharmonic.

His victory there, at age 23, helped skyrocket him to international stardom. A welcome home included a New York ticker-tape parade and an audience with then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House. His picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Cliburn and The Moscow Philharmonic are on a 17-city tour with a remarkable and exhausting program. In addition to playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, he will narrate Copland's "Lincoln's Portrait." He'll even play "The Star-Spangled Banner," he said.

The tour is a birthday celebration. Cliburn turned 60 on Tuesday. Since 1978, when he announced "an intermission" in his career, most of his public performances have been for special occasions, and many have had a Russian connection. After total public musical silence for nine years, he performed at a White House state dinner honoring Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 at the request of the Reagans. Later that year he won rave reviews for "Vanya, Vanya" at The Moscow Conservatory's Great Hall - the site of his victory at the first Tchaikovsky Competition.

The idea for the summer tour developed over a jolly after-midnight dinner in New York. The Moscow Philharmonic conductor, Vassily Sinaisky and Sinaisky's wife dined with Cliburn after he had narrated Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" with the Moscow orchestra earlier that evening.

"Vassily suggested we do (`Lincoln's Portrait') in South America or Europe," said Cliburn. …