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Van Cliburn, a virtuoso and a gentleman


It was sad to hear that Van Cliburn died today, of complications from bone cancer. He was a sweet, sweet man, not to mention a heck of a pianist, and he had a lot of connections with Buffalo.

Cliburn was the type of gentleman who remembered things and I will always recall how once, when I interviewed him for The News, he discussed so vividly his appearance with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Josef Krips in the 1950s, before the Tchaikovsky Competition that made him famous.

That was when the pedals came off the piano, and they had to be fixed. Cliburn and Krips found on that occasion that they had something in common: they were both very religious men. Cliburn was Baptist, and Krips was Catholic. And so they prayed together backstage that the pedals would be fixed, which they were. Cliburn remembered everything about the occasion. What the weather was like. The name of the musician who fixed the piano. I was amazed by all that.

When Cliburn came here most recently, in fall 2007, I will never forget how he showed up at the Rue Franklin and played the piano. This little spinet had been borrowed for the occasion, and there Cliburn was, his tall lanky frame bent over this ridiculous dinky piano, playing it.

Not only that, but he accompanied Michael Ludwig, the BPO's concertmaster. Ludwig played Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise." I will never forget it. I mean, you are looking at Van Cliburn, playing little chords, whatever. There were people in the other room eating and talking, oblivious to that it was Van Cliburn in the other room. Ha, ha!

Such modesty this man had. I do not even want to call it charm because that suggests something contrived. He was genuine. He was a strange kind of public person. You could tell he knew he was public property and he had accepted that. And he just spread joy.

At the Rue Franklin, it happened I was there with my aunt and uncle and my husband. I was not there in any, ahem, official capacity. Shyly, I went to say hello to Van Cliburn and tell him that I had talked to him for the paper and also I had been in his amateur piano competition back in, yikes, 1999, and I had been at his house, and I had loved that experience so much. You would not believe what it was like to be in Cliburn's house, by the way. It was this incredible mansion overlooking Fort Worth, with pianos in every room, and you could play the pianos and set your drinks down on them and he didn't care. If you walked up to him he would hug you. He wore this wonderful cologne, is another detail that sticks in my mind.

When I descended on Cliburn at the Rue, it is not as if he would have remembered me from that competition, but was so nice. After playing the "Vocalise" he came into the dining room where we were. He came picking his way between all the tables, and he's so tall, and I do not think anybody knew who he was, and everyone was just kind of staring at him. "Excuse me," he kept saying to people in his Texas twang. "Excuse me."

He did all that just so he could joke around with us! We were laughing about that I was going to make my comeback at his competition. And we had in common that we both hated Michael Moore, the filmmaker. It is no secret that Cliburn was this Texas Republican.

We also joked about stage fright and as he was exiting the dining room of the Rue, Cliburn got in one more laugh about that.

"Mr. Cliburn, I'm looking forward to your concert at Kleinhans," I said.

He was halfway across the room by that point but he turned and yelled back, "Ah'm going to be nervous!"

With everyone staring at him!

God love him, you know? When you look back on his career, sure, it could have been better. He had a tough time with his fame and it held him back. He felt overscrutinized, I think, for everything he did, and so for long periods of time he did next to nothing. It was an unfortunate situation and probably resulted in him not achieving his artistic potential. But it is human.

For all his ambivalence about his career, though, he never let it get to him. He was such a sweet man and the people who loved him, he loved them back. He was a dear man, a graceful man, a gentleman. Not to mention a heck of a pianist.

The world will miss him. I will, too.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman


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