Pianist a World Symbol, Too

Article excerpt

Byline: Gabriella Boston

****The Kennedy Center bestows its annual Honors this weekend on five artists for their lifetime achievement in the performing arts. c Receiving the awards tonight at a State Department dinner, with Secretary of State Colin Powell as the host, will be actress and singer Julie Andrews, pianist Van Cliburn, music producer and composer Quincy Jones, actor Jack Nicholson and tenor Luciano Pavarotti. The artists also will be honored at a gala tomorrow night at the Kennedy Center. c The 24th annual gala, a fund-raiser to support performing arts, educational, public service and outreach initiatives by the Kennedy Center, will air at 9 p.m. Dec. 26 on CBS, with Walter Cronkite as the host.****

Van Cliburn is a romantic pianist known for his unwavering slow notes, relatively small repertoire and, most important, beating the Russians - at least musically - when the United States most needed a hero in the 1950s.

"Americans were paranoid about communism [in the 1950s]," says Howard Reich, a music critic for the Chicago Tribune and a biographer of Mr. Cliburn. "We were so hungry for something that showed us that we weren't losing. And along comes Van Cliburn and becomes this international symbol."

Mr. Cliburn, who is among this year's Kennedy Center Honorees, is perhaps best known for his rendition of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the pieces he played to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow 1958, at the height of the Cold War.

Mr. Cliburn was 23 years old and a 6-foot-4-inch, handsome Texan. No one expected him to win.

"Russians had a very low opinion of American culture. But he impressed them," says Richard Pipes, a Cold War historian based in Cambridge, Mass. "He helped show that Americans were not all cowboys and millionaires . . . but also great artists."

When Mr. Cliburn returned to the United States he was greeted as a national hero with a ticker tape parade in New York, the first musician to ever receive such a welcome.

"He was important enough politically for Eisenhower and other presidents to court him and be photographed with him," Mr. Reich says.

When the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957, many Americans had felt defeated. But with Mr. Cliburn's unexpected win on Russian soil, Americans felt somewhat vindicated.

"I think he would be the most important political symbol within American culture [if it weren't for Leonard Bernstein]," Mr. Reich says.

Composer and conductor Bernstein conducted celebratory pieces on both sides of the Berlin Wall as it was being dismantled in December 1989.

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While lauded by the general public, Mr. Cliburn has been criticized throughout his career - which has slowed significantly - by music writers across the nation for his drawn-out, romantic delivery and repertoire mostly confined to romantic composers.

But Mr. Cliburn never has played to please critics.

"It's an artist's prerogative to play the way he wants," Mr. Reich says. "Van Cliburn styles himself after an older-style virtuoso. They had a few pieces where they excelled."

Mr. Reich calls the tempo "a relaxed Texas sensibility - he was not in a rush to get anywhere."

Mr. Cliburn endured the criticism, maintained the integrity of his interpretation and pleased fans by the millions, says Santiago Rodriguez, a concert pianist and professor and artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park. "I have never seen an artist withstand so much criticism," he says.

"Cliburn has a very unique style of play," Mr. Rodriguez says. "He showed that you can be a romantic without making a parody of romantic music. . . . It's romanticism without the neurotic intensities." Mr. Cliburn, born in Shreveport, La., but essentially a Texan - having moved to that state at age 6 - started playing the piano skillfully and seemingly without effort when most children were busy playing in the sandbox. …