Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Van Cliburn, 1934-2013

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, my dad found out that Van Cliburn was going to perform a concert at Murray State University.  I don't know if it was part of a regular series of concerts hosted by the school, or if this was a special event just for Van Cliburn.  But either way, my father was determined that we would go.  He had been a big fan of Cliburn's ever since 1958, when the Texas native had stunned the world by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.  Americans didn't often win international competitions in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and they certainly weren't better than the Russians at classical musicianship.  But Cliburn did, and he was.  He became a huge international star, he traveled the world, becoming one of the world's most famous concert pianists.

And now he was coming to Murray.

You have to understand that my father was a small businessman in the 1970's, and that it was virtually impossible for him to take any time off.  I don't remember him ever staying home because he was sick.  I don't remember ever seeing him at home on a weekday.  He had to work.  That's just the way it was, and everyone who's parents have ever owned a small business will understand.  But this one time, he told us that he was leaving work early.  The seating at the concert was first-come, first-served, and we wanted a good seat.

The concert was supposed to start at 7:30 P.M.  We were in Murray by 5.

I can still remember the emptiness of the hall, and our joy at being the first ones there.  The four of us -- my parents, my brother, and myself -- found seats in the very middle of the front row, only a few feet from the stage.  It was amazing to be alone in the hall, and to know that we were so close to seeing true greatness.

Eventually, the hall filled, and we all experienced that wonderful buzz you get just before something wonderful is about to happen.  We waited, and waited, and then suddenly a tall elegant figure -- the face from millions of records and television appearances -- the spotless white tie and tail coat -- Cliburn was there.  I don't remember what he played that night.  But I do remember feeling a sense of connection to a greater and larger world than I had experienced before.  This amazing, wonderful artist -- who had played for kings and presidents all around the world -- was playing for us.  And if he could come to western Kentucky, then a kid from western Kentucky could go off and see the world.

As it turned out, Cliburn stopped doing concerts in 1978, and didn't return to the stage for eleven years. So that concert had to be one of the last ones he did before his sabbatical.  If we hadn't gone to see him that day -- if my dad hadn't taken one of the few breaks in his working life -- we would have missed him forever.

I don't know what the concert meant to Cliburn, but it meant a great deal to us.  Years later I heard a story about Joe DiMaggio.  According to the story, someone once asked DiMaggio why he played so hard all the time.  And DiMaggio responded:  "Because there may be someone at the game who's never seen Joe DiMaggio before."  The story reminded me of Van Cliburn.  In Murray, Cliburn played for a lot of people who weren't nearly as famous or as wealthy as those who attended some of his other concerts.  But he never played for an audience who appreciated him more.

Today, my father called to tell me that Cliburn had died of bone cancer, and all of these memories came back  Between them, my father and Van Cliburn had taught me two wonderful lessons.  My father had taught me that certain things -- such as great music and the education of one's children -- are more important than work.  And Cliburn had shown that the massive heritage of Western Civilization wasn't just for folks in New York or London or Paris -- it belongs to the rural South as well.  Together, these lessons changed my life.  So I'm very happy Van Cliburn came to Murray.


  1. My memories of that concert are that we got there super early, had seats on the front row, and I slept through the entire performance. Funny thing is though it is a very fond memory for me.

    I'm pretty sure by the way he bought a whole series of tickets for performances at Murray in order to get those tickets but I could be wrong. I think that was the same performance series where we saw the Sound of Music.

    1. That was a great series. I remember seeing "The Sound of Music" as well.

  2. thanks for the beautiful memory of " how it was", not so long ago.