It was the middle of the cold war, Anti-Americanism was
rampant in Russia, and American culture, in most Russian’s mind, was confined
to commerce and Coca-Cola. That was when
a young American, Harvey Lavan “Van”Cliburn, Jr. conquered the Soviet bloc(k)
in 1958 at the age of twenty three when he won the first International
Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. Thanks to his “golden sound” Russians
had to re-adjust their mindset.
Returning home from Moscow, Mr. Cliburn received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the
only time a classical musician was ever honored with the highest tribute possible by the City of New York. Upon Mr. Cliburn’s invitation, Kiril Kondrashin, the Russian conductor with whom the pianist had played hisprizewinning performance, came from Moscow to repeat the celebrated concert program with Van Cliburn at Carnegie Hall in New York, and other cities. Their
recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, made during Kondrashin’s visit, was the first classical recording ever to be awarded a platinum record, and has sold well over three million copies, according to Allan Bedford Sampson, President and CEO of the Van Cliburn Foundation, as stated in the latest Christie’s catalog.
Van Cliburn started to study piano at age 3 with his mother who was a pupil of Arthur Friedheim, himself a pupil of Anton Rubinstein and Franz Liszt. At 12 Van Cliburn made his orchestral debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra and his
mother wanted him to study with the legendary Madame Rosina Lhevinne at New York Julliard’s school.
Now more than fifty years later, and a career with all the honors a great master can be awarded with, Mr. Van Cliburn is back in town -- not to play a concert but to auction his own and his mother’s collection of English furniture, Russian works of art, silver, jewelry, and, for piano devotees, his mother’s piano. The Steinway Model D concert grand is estimated at $40-60,000. The auction is to take place May 17th at Christie’s New York. In honor of his mother’s memory, the proceeds will benefitthe Julliard School and the Moscow Conservatory where Van Cliburn studied.
Van Cliburn’s high estimation for his mother is exemplified in what he told me at the auction preview where I met him for the first time on Mother’s Day, no less: “I always thought my mother played much more beautifully than I did.” One could sense the strong impact his mother had on him being his advisor, manager and inspiration, and in conversing with the legendary pianist, I was also struck that even at 77 years old, Mr. Van Cliburn has kept a youthful elegant demeanor and personal charm.
His interest and effort to aid young artists in their careers is nowhere more evident than in the legendary Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which was started in 1962, early in his own career, and is one of the most prestigious international piano competitions to this day.
What a perfect circling of time it was to see Van Cliburn, at the auction house, pulling a chair out at his mother’s
piano for the young talented pianist, Vladislav Kern, born in Moscow to a family of musicians who is currently studying at Julliard with chair of the piano faculty, Yoheved Kaplinsky.
For Van Cliburn fans, Van Cliburn will be at the New York Public Library, speaking about his
career and his extensive collection with Paul Holdengraeber. The event is Tuesday, May 15, at 7 pm, at the Stephen Schwarzman Building.