Last Friday evening, many PBS stations presented a special film: It was of a concert honoring President Kennedy on his birthday, May 29, 1962. Leonard Bernstein was the M.C., and performers included Harry Belafonte, Marian Anderson, and a very young Yo-Yo Ma.
Toward the end of the program, Bernstein introduced Van Cliburn, who would play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-Sharp Minor (BRM20189). My wife Lisa and I braced ourselves for “Onslaught-88.” But Cliburn somehow kept the pyrotechnics in the background, allowing the melodies in the piece to express, to sing. I had probably heard this rhapsody before, but it had never affected me in a positive way until I heard his presentation.
Only after the concert ended did I realize that history had just repeated itself for me. More than 50 years ago when I was in junior high, my mother and I and several others from school went to hear Van Cliburn perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony orchestra. Until that Sunday afternoon, I had thought of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto (BRM23965) as a mix of bravura and schmaltz; then, as on PBS, Van Cliburn made the piece beautiful. Not long after the concert I got his recording of the concerto, and listened to it over and over.
Two years later, one of my high school teachers took me to hear Van Cliburn give a recital. The program included Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 “Pathetique” (BRM35809), Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel (BRM30549), Debussy’s Reflets dans L’eau [from Images, Book One] (BRM00164), and Feux d’artifice [from Preludes, Book Two] (BRM28649), Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, [The Fountain] (BRM00383), and Chopin’s Etude, Op. 10, No. 12 “Revolutionary” (BRM36143). (I still remember hearing my teacher humming part of the Chopin melody as we were leaving the hall.)
Below are some books that may be of interest:
Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story, How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War by Nigel Cliff (DB 86789)
The Ivory Trade: Music and the Business of Music at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition by Joseph Horowitz (DB 34313)