By PABLO A. TARIMAN
THE sad news in the music world is that pianist Van Cliburn– the first American pianist to win the First Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 — was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer.
Last week, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas reported the 78-year-old pianist appeared briefly in the concert of the Fort Worth Symphony for the 50th anniversary of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Cliburn was a familiar figure in Philippine cultural scene during Martial Law with Imelda Marcos as the patroness of arts. Cliburn’s name appears several times in the guest book of the Coconut Palace, where Mrs. Marcos celebrity guests used to stay. (Vice President Jejomar Binay currently holds office there.)
When Imelda was hospitalized after an assassin tried to kill her with a bolo during a speaking engagement in 1972, one of the visitors was Cliburn.
The friendship between the former First Lady and the American pianist bloomed to such heights the latter agreed to give a fund-raising concert for the benefit of young talented Filipino musicians.
When Cliburn arrived in Manila in the early 70s for such a concert, the one who gave him the welcome bouquet at the airport was no other than Cecile Licad, Imelda’s favorite prodigy.
That Cliburn concert raised funds for the Young Artists Foundation which funded several aspiring musicians among them Licad, Rowena Arrieta, Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz, the Bolipata brothers and Noel Velasco, among others.
In another fund-raising concert at the Araneta Coliseum with the CCP orchestra (now the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra), Cliburn played the Tchaikovsky Concerto without the benefit of a rehearsal. The pianist was stuck in Leyte with Imelda and arrived in Manila just in time for the concert. The CCP president, Lucresia Kasilag greeted Cliburn and conductor Luis Valencia backstage with, “Amazing how this concerto went very well without a rehearsal.”
A few years later in the young Licad’s first performance in Van Cliburn’s home state, Texas, the mother — Mrs.Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn – was so impressed she slipped a $100 in the prodigy’s concert gown after her performance with the Forth Worth Symphony.
The first edition of the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition won by Cliburn was significant for many things. It was an event intended to showcase the cultural superiority of the then Soviet Union during the Cold War era. It unfolded right after their successful Sputnik launching in October 1957.
But as it turned out, the judges were clearly impressed by the American pianist’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No.3 in the final round and the audiences agreed with an eight-minute standing ovation.
But will that jury verdict sit well with the Soviet leadership?
Just to make sure the jury wouldn’t be in trouble, they were obliged to ask clearance from Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev who said, “Is the American pianist the best in that batch of finalists?”
The jury nodded and the Soviet leader announced: “Then give him the prize.”
For the first time in the history of classical music in America, an American pianist was given a ticker-tape parade in New York normally reserved for beauty queens and rock stars.
The 1958 Time Magazine cover story read: “The Texan who conquered Russia.”
A Filipino made history when Rowena Arrieta placed fifth in the 7th edition of the Tchaikovsky Competition in the mid-80s.
It was Cecile Licad’s turn to play at the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow in 2011 as soloist in the Brahms concerto with the Russian State Orchestra.
In the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, two Filipino musicians – Kasilag and Valencia – were once invited in the jury.
But so far, only one Filipino pianist made it in this competition: Iloilo-born Ma. Luis Lopez Vito who placed fourth in the 1966 edition of the Van Cliburn Competition with Romania’s sensational Radu Lupu as the first prize winner. On the other hand, two of the top prizewinners, Brazilian Cristina Ortiz and American Steven de Groote, had performed at the CCP to great acclaim.
Born Harvey Lavan ” Van” Cliburn Jr., on July 12, 1934, the pianist entered the Juilliard School at the age of seventeen and shared the stage with a Filipino pianist – Ernestina Crisologo — during the summer recital of 1949. Like Licad, Cliburn was also recipient of the Leventritt award along with frequent Manila visitor, Gary Graffman.
Reflecting on his 1958 musical triumph in a PBS interview where the topic shifted to Time Magazine describing him as the Texan who conquered Russia, Cliburn didn’t consider the event a big deal.
“If they appreciate what you did — I am so grateful, because Russians were wonderful to me. They were such great audiences; I cannot begin to tell you. I didn’t conquer anything. As a matter of fact, they conquered my heart,” he said.
By coincidence, Cliburn appeared many years back in the cartoon, “Iron Man” playing himself in the episode “Silence My Companion, Death My Destination”.