Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rocky (a.k.a. Van) goes to Russia

Remember Rocky 4? Rocky goes to Russia, beats the Russian behemoth at his own game, and rather than smugly gloating he turns it into a passionate speech about how as the fight progressed he and the crowd realized how similar Americans and Russians actually are. The scene where the Russian premier stands up and applauds (then followed by his aides) was a poignant illustration of the slowly thawing relations between our two great nations.

Did you know this actually happened in real life once? It just wasn't the way you think. When I was young I had a great Russian piano teacher for many years, who always used the example of Van Cliburn to motivate me. "You can't just be a little better" he would say, "the reason Van Cliburn, an American could go to the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war and still win was because he was so much better there was no question!"

Van Cliburn died yesterday (2-27-13) at the age of 78. I actually saw him at one of his last public performance when I was a child. I was lucky enough to see him on the first stop of the tour, as he cancelled the rest! Through my teacher, Dimitri, and that one concert he has for ever been a poignant influence in my life. How could one man, single handedly (figuratively of course!) endear himself to Russians and Americans alike, while for the first time showing that American musicians could compete against the best in the world?

The impact of Mr. Cliburn’s victory was enhanced by a series of vivid articles written for The New York Times by Max Frankel, then a foreign correspondent based in Moscow and later an executive editor of the paper. The reports of Mr. Cliburn’s progress — prevailing during the early rounds, making it to the finals and becoming the darling of the Russian people, who embraced him in the streets and flooded him with fan mail and flowers — created intense anticipation as he entered the finals.

He was a sensation! The boxing ring was a little different. Other than perhaps a judge ignoring something not allowed, the International Tchaikovsky competition could very obviously be influenced, and even controlled by the Party in a way we only see on a large scale in China these days. In fact his performance was so amazing, then premier Nikita Khruschev in fact gave the judges the nod to his victory! Van Cliburn, or course was completely oblivious:

“Oh, I never thought about all that,” Mr. Cliburn recalled in 2008 during an interview with The Times. “I was just so involved with the sweet and friendly people who were so passionate about music.” The Russians, he added, “reminded me of Texans.”

Really? Think of Rocky when the crowd in Russia started chanting:
On the night of the final round, when Mr. Cliburn performed the Tchaikovsky First Concerto, a solo work by Dmitry Kabalevsky (written as a test piece for the competition) and the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, the audience broke into chants of “First prize! First prize!” Emil Gilels, one of the judges, went backstage to embrace him.
The jury agreed with the public, and Moscow celebrated. At a Kremlin reception, Mr. Cliburn was bearhugged by Khrushchev. “Why are you so tall?” Khrushchev asked. “Because I am from Texas,” Mr. Cliburn answered.
Much like the made up Rocky in a short while Van Cliburn endeared himself to the Russian public in a way that was unimaginable. Unlike Rocky however, that moment was his coming out to America as well:
When Mr. Cliburn returned to New York he received a ticker-tape parade in Lower Manhattan, the first musician to be so honored, cheered by 100,000 people lining Broadway. In a ceremony at City Hall, Mayor Robert F. Wagner proclaimed that “with his two hands, Van Cliburn struck a chord which has resounded around the world, raising our prestige with artists and music lovers everywhere.”
A worldwide rockstar 2 years before The Beatles started their run on the world! The rest of his life seemed downhill from there. When he returned he recorded his performance from Moscow, and it sold over a million copies in the fist year. He quickly started pulling in massive rates for performances, but it was not long to be. His forays into other works were mostly not well received. Most people just wanted to hear the Tchaikovsky and the Rachmaninov 3. He of course became fabulously wealthy, but became increasingly erratic, and left the stage for years at a time.

In any case I will not dwell on his later life. I saw him perform the Tchaikovsky and was forever changed.   I spent my last two years of Piano back when I lived in Austin working on the Tchaikovsky - 1, and my preferred Rachmaninov - 2 because of his impact. Two days ago a legend, and American hero who indirectly played a big part in my life passed away. Rest in Peace Van Cliburn. I want to thank Dimitri Kirichenko in San Diego, and Julia Krueger in Austin Texas for the amazing impact they also had on my life. I am also grateful beyond belief for the love and passion for music I derived from all those years on the Piano, and Clarinet.

New York Times article with lots of good info which I have excerpted a few times above:

Van Cliburn plays the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto. It's opening is the most grandiose and powerful around in my opinion. AMAZING close ups of his hands. Note about 5:30 in. Those are octaves in both hands! There's a similar section about 8 minutes in. By do I remember toiling over those sections. If you click through to the second half of the first movement there is an amazing virtuoso finish as well. The third movement also has an amazing finish, and I LOVE the way he looks at the conductor.

Van Cliburn plays the Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto. This one has a powerful opening, but rather than being grandiose, it's power is in passion. I absolutely LOVE this piece. It does get rather grandiose when those big Rachmaninov chords come in on occasion.

My 3rd favorite Piano Concerto, Grieg's first, performed by Evgeny Kissin. Not related to Van Cliburn in any way. Just a side note.

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