The Van Cliburn I Know

By Salmon, John | American Music Teacher, February-March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Van Cliburn I Know


Salmon, John, American Music Teacher


Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, as an aspiring concert pianist, it was impossible for me to escape the long shadow of Van Cliburn. I was born in 1954, started piano lessons in 1960 and, from 1973-78, attended Texas Christian University, home of the Van Cliburn Competition. I heard Cliburn in recital several times in Fort Worth, and my family hosted competitors in 1966, 1973 and 1977. My father, a CPA by trade, was auditor for the jury in 1973 and 1977. And, while I did give a recital once for the Van Cliburn Foundation, ca. 1976, I did not survive the "pre-screening" audition for the 1977 and 1981 competitions. I was both animated by, yet held in the psychological grips of, the Van Cliburn Competition. I have a clear recollection of a photograph of my childhood friend and rival Meade Crane, piano prodigy and local star, sitting in Cliburn's lap, around 1961. Success would be Crane's, I remember thinking. (Crane did make it, known nowadays as one of Seattle's most original chamber musicians.)

Another vivid memory was of a Cliburn Competition party in 1969, co-hosted by my mother at a neighbor's house, attended by Cliburn himself, Radu Lupu, Cristina Ortiz (who won the gold medal that year) and other luminaries. I was 14 at the time, versatile in both classical and jazz and had been asked to entertain the group. When I started to play "Girl From Ipanema," the Brazilian Ortiz came to the piano and started singing the lyrics (in Portuguese, of course), with Cliburn, all 6-foot-4-inches of him, standing by my side, delighted by the performance. I remember asking Cliburn if he wanted to play something (my natural audacity augmented by my youth), to which he courteously replied, "No, John, I haven't practiced in two weeks."

I left Fort Worth in 1978 to pursue my pianistic dream elsewhere, without the Cliburn Competition's sanction. In that same year, Cliburn began an approximately nine-year sabbatical. In 1985, he moved to Fort Worth, where he attended (and still attends) my parents' church, Broadway Baptist, whose spectacular organ is named after his mother.

I now interpret in a literary way, the 1978 coincidence of his retirement with my own pianistic independence, as if one had caused the other. (I am nothing if not hyperbolic in my old age.)

The truth is, of course, that Cliburn probably does not know me from Adam. And, in the roughly 45 years since the photo was snapped of Crane sitting in Cliburn's lap; in the 37 years since he stood over me while I accompanied Ms. Ortiz; and in the 25 years since I was last eliminated from the competition ... I seem to have carved out something of a pianistic career for myself, and made peace with Cliburn's imposing shadow.

Indeed, I am delighted by Cliburn's appearance for the MTNA conference attendees in March 2006. It will be a kind of "full circle" feeling for me ... a fellow Texan, 20 years older than I, who practically reinvented the profession of "concert pianist," holding forth in the state's capital (and home to the University of Texas at Austin, another alma mater of mine) on his life in music. My life is forever intertwined with Cliburn's. (My mother recently told me another semi-trivial link: in the early 1930s, my mother's aunt sang at a wedding in Henrietta, Texas, accompanied by Rildia Bee, Cliburn's mother.)

For those whose lives have not been so dominated by or closely stitched to Cliburn's, the following sketch may fill in some blanks.

Rildia Bee and Rosina

Cliburn's first piano teacher was his mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, who herself had studied with Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Liszt's. She was, without a doubt, Cliburn's most important pianistic influence. As Cliburn later recalled, "From age 3, she gave me a piano lesson every day of my life. Every single day (until age 17)." The intensity of their relationship--son and pupil, mother and teacher, 24/7--is virtually unimaginable nowadays.

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