Van Cliburn dies

Written by Andrew Druckenbrod on .

American piano legend Van Cliburn died today. Our homepage has the Associate Press obit, but here is some local info and commentary I have been collecting:


Mr. Cliburn had a extended relationship with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra that began before his Moscow victory. Music director William Steinberg conducted the pianist’s Pittsburgh debut in January 1955. At the concert, at the Syria Mosque he soloed in what would be his signature piece, Tchaikovksy’s Piano Concerto No. 1. He performed on six more subscription weekends, four benefit concerts, the last in May 19, 1973 at Heinz Hall, and was the soloist for a PSO appearance at Carnegie Hall in Nov. 5, 1971. In 1967 Duquesne University presented him with an honorary doctorate.

“The first time I heard him play was in March 1964, when he performed
Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 1 with the Pittsburgh Symphony under
William Steinberg,” said former Post-Gazette classical music critic Robert Croan. “I still remember the singing line and variety of tonal color he brought to the slow movement. Later in his career, he lost some of the accuracy and spontaneity, but for me, no other pianist has ever quite matched him in that particular moment.”
A remarkable vignet about Mr. Cliburn is related in “Play On,” a history of the PSO published in 2011. Only a few months after the first International Tchaikovsky Competition and the ticker tape parade, Steinberg fined Mr. Cliburn $500 for arriving late to a rehearsal ahead of a PSO concert in November 1958.

And some remembrances:


"Winning the Tchaikovsky was very important to American pianists -- we didn't have to feel we were inferior to the Europeans," said David Allen Wehr, concert pianist and the Jack W. Geltz Distinguished Piano Chair at Duquesne University.

Christopher O'Riley, the Squirrel Hill native who hosts NPR's acclaimed classical program "From the Top," remembered a different kind of symbolism with Mr. Cliburn's winning the Tchaikovsky.

"There was just this wonderful boyish giant in the midst of the cold war winning this prize that people wanted to love," he said. "That was a big change from the old version of the venerable artist. There were other great pianists at the time, but you just wanted to root for him."

Seeing Mr. Cliburn in recital in a high school gymnasium in Boise, Idaho, was life-changing to Mr. Wehr, then a sixth-grade student.

"That is what inspired me to be a concert pianist," Mr. Wehr said. "Every American pianist of 1960 and 1970 would have taken their inspiration from him."

"I went backstage to meet him," Mr. Wehr said. "My dentist was there, and he joked that I had good teeth. Cliburn 'inspected' them and agreed. That's the kind of person he was. He cared about people as well as music. That is why he was so beloved. The generosity that characterized him as a person is what made him so irresistible in this romantic repertoire, people felt he was sincere."




—Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette classical music critic

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