I have known about Van Cliburn was since I was very little. He was about the only American that (Soviet) Russians did not hate but admired (maybe the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Louis Armstrong). Van Cliburn won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. It was 1958. The Soviets had just kicked American … sorry … by putting Sputnik into space. To celebrate and demonstrate their cultural superiority, the Soviets started the International Tchaikovsky Competition – a Russian version of the Olympics Games, but for the performance of classical music.
A young American from Louisiana, Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn performed parts from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. He was an American, in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, performing incredibly difficult concertos by two Russian composers; and he did it so well that the Russians in the audience stood and applauded him for eight minutes! Remember, those were the Russians that were brainwashed to hate “evil, imperialistic” Americans (my grandparents, my parents, and even I, for part of my life, belonged to that group of brainwashed people).
Political tensions were so high at the time that before the judges could award Van Cliburn the gold medal, they had to check with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. “Is he the best?” Khrushchev is said to have asked; “then give him the prize!” There is something very pure and uplifting about this story – how the power of music trumps hate. Hollywood should should get going on a movie.
Sadly, Van Cliburn passed away on February 27th (read his obit in the Wash Post). Just last month my kids and I were listening to Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 in the car, and I was telling them his story. Today I want to share with you Van Cliburn performing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, in 1958. (parts: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). I’ll write about this concerto and the impact it had on me sometime in the future.