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Van Cliburn and his fraught generation

Van CliburnWith any luck, Van Cliburn lived to watch the Oscars one last time.

The legendary pianist, who died Wednesday at age 78 after a long struggle with liver cancer, was that kind of guy. In the years after his 1978 retirement from full-time concertizing, the way to engage him was not with some erudite conversation about music – such things seemed to pain him – but to discuss the latest movies and who might get the big prizes. He would just light right up. That’s not what the world expects from musicians who have been saddled with expectations of profundity.

Playing the right concerts at the right time – winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Soviet Russia at the height of the Cold War – granted him evergreen fame that no other pianist had experienced. And he deserved it: his early recordings show a musician with an incredibly magnetic personality. (My favorite is not the Rachmaninoff/Tchaikovsky repertoire, but a Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 recorded live in Moscow.) But that kind of stardom is always constricting and sometimes fatal. And by no means was Cliburn the only one to endure fame’s fallout.

His generation of American pianists – Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Byron Janis (all born in 1928), Eugene Istomin (1925-2003) and Ruth Slenczynska (b. 1925) – often seemed to prove the F. Scott Fitzgerald dictum that there are no “second acts” in American lives. None of them, for one reason or another, had consistent careers, though those who went down first are the ones who came back and thrived the longest.

Cliburn’s career was effectively over in the late 1970s, when his playing had become not only slipshod but less emotionally committed. I attended two of his comeback performances – in 1989 with the Philadelphia Orchestra (his first concert in 11 years), and later at the start of a 1994 cross-country tour that began at the Hollywood Bowl.

In comeback No. 1, he played two concertos (Liszt and Tchaikovsky), though he began with The Star Spangled Banner (he was on such intimate terms with the national anthem that he referred to it as “The Banner”) and then recited a poem, a simple one, that told you where he was really at – not at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, but at some ladies’ musicale in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was born.

For comeback No. 2, he hired an orchestra and booked dates working eastward across the US to Carnegie Hall, where he no doubt hoped to recapture former glory by playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. But at the Hollywood Bowl, after a curiously long intermission, there came the announcement: Mr. Cliburn was suffering from dizzy spells and wasn’t up to playing the Rachmaninoff concerto, but he would play some works from his solo encore repertoire. At date after date, Cliburn fans wondered if he would pull together the Rachmaninoff for Carnegie Hall. He did not. Thereafter, he played sporadically on special occasions, but mainly tended the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

What happened? In one extended interview, he subscribed to the theory of absolute knowledge. Not only was the music he played classic, but so was his investigation of it. Once he hit the mark, he reached an interpretive end point and could only strive to keep hitting it at every subsequent performance.

His standards were high. Entire concertos lie in the RCA vaults unreleased (among them is a Schumann Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch) because he wouldn’t approve them.  But is it any wonder that Cliburn was burned out by middle age? No new information, it seemed, was entering his musical psyche. How could he not grow stagnant?

His contemporaries all hit mid-life crises. Some 15 years ago, I set about looking for a common cause and attempted to interview all of them. Janis, who suffers from severe arthritis but still plays, found the subject so uncomfortable during a phone interview that he hung up on me. Both Graffman and Fleisher, on the other hand, had injuries that robbed them of the use of their right arms and were eager to raise public awareness of the causes.

Slenczynska ended her child-prodigy career at age 15, but had a major second career, eventually settling into quiet academia, though still playing concerts.  Istomin performed the most steadily, but he developed such free, flexible tempos that conductors died many deaths trying to follow him. Among interviewees, he was the most articulate on the subject of mid-career crises.

Roughly speaking, this was his theory: His was the first generation of big-career American pianists, achieving great success at a young age. With recording contracts and radio broadcasts, microphones were everywhere, seeming to demand technical perfection not expected of previous generations. Their reputations constantly preceded them. There were no minor concerts.

Though many of these pianists were carrying the mantle of the great Artur Schnabel, that paragon of musical integrity who could also be a hugely inaccurate player, they were secretly trying to keep up with Vladimir Horowitz (Janis and Graffman actually studied with him). Horowitz’s virtuosity was so unique that emulating it was bound to have all manner of side effects.

Yet each one had what even Fitzgerald might call second acts. Janis still has much to offer within a circumscribed repertoire; he has also written a number of Andrew Lloyd Webber-style musicals. After years of a serene domestic life while teaching at Southern Illinois University, Slenczynska lost her husband to lymphoma, moved to New York City and made regular visits to the Far East. Her last recording, made in 2009, was of Brahms’s late-period solo miniatures; it was among her finest achievements and is as great as any in this repertoire’s crowded discography.

Years of searching for cures finally paid off for Fleisher, who has returned to two-handed playing, though with intermittent success. (The Tokyo Quartet, for one, counts collaborations with Fleisher among its great moments.) In recent years, he premiered Paul Hindemith’s previously lost Piano Concerto for the Left Hand – a major contribution to the repertoire.

After Graffman could no longer play with his right arm, he accepted his fate graciously, played left-hand repertoire and ran the Curtis Institute of Music, where he taught Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. Now, he still plays – between frequent trips to China where he collects art with a passion. But the most perfect matched set is Graffman himself with his wife Naomi. He may be the most contented human being I’ve ever met.

And Cliburn? His piano competition is certainly a second act. But there was evidence of more. Two years ago when I was in Fort Worth for some work relating to the event, Van himself came by, making eye contact with everybody, always with a pleasantry to put you at ease. All speeches received not only his compliments but a request for a printed copy that he could enjoy later.

Van Cliburn’s natural sweetness was such that he no longer needed to play piano in order to be adored. That’s a second act one could certainly aspire to.




  1. A spot on look at music careers.

    Many, maybe most, “music careers” are careers with music, not careers in music. There are few musicians who do not, at some point, find their place doing something other than playing. They teach, they compose for film, or they run piano competitions.They do so for various reasons, but the unifying point is that the full-time music playing life is a rara avis.

  2. Back in the 60’s, as a violinist with the Detroit Symphony, I used to take snapshots of the soloists. At our
    summer performing venue, Cliburn was coming from the parking lot to the stairs leading to the backstage
    area. As I aimed my camera, my daughter, who was four or five at the time, ran up to him and said,
    “My Daddy wants to take your picture and you’re not smiling!” He answered, “You know why I’m not smiling,
    because you’re not in the picture!” He grabbed both of my little kids and I have a photograph that I value
    to this day.
    A very, very nice man.

    • Nathan Davis says:

      He was, indeed, a very nice man! As an impressionable teenager, I saw him in recital in Boise, Idaho in 1966. I was walking across the parking lot with my father afterward, and his car drove by. I yelled out, “Have a nice journey Mr. Cliburn!” He asked the driver to stop the car, rolled down his window, and, smiling, said “Thank you! Thank you very very much!” I will always treasure that moment!

  3. Rafael de Acha says:

    Patrick – Thank you for this fine posting. There’s much to say about singers who re-invented themselves into the central characters of second acts in operas of their own making. I wonder if you would ever like to write about that, I’m sure that you would bring some interest insights into the subject. There’s the happy and lucky ones – Marilyn Horne, for example – who never really retired. There’s those whose careers were stopped short by a catastrophic illness – think of the great Danish recitalist Aksel Schiotz – who, against all odds, came back. So many stories to tell about people like yourself, condemned to music. Thanks again.

  4. Phillip says:

    Among these “second acts,” I think it’s also worth mentioning the incredibly widespread influence Fleisher had as a teacher, an aspect of his career that he began a few years before the onset of his hand ailment, and in which he is still active. That’s over a half-century of teaching, which also means that enormous numbers of his students are out there playing and teaching around the world, and many of THEIR students are now establishing careers as players and teachers, too. So the “family tree” of pianists influenced by Fleisher’s musical thinking (in many ways handed down from Schnabel and beyond) is vast.

  5. He was a fairly good piano player-learned to play a few standard concertos fairly well won a prize or two
    as did many others and had a less than modest success until the world of politics made him famous
    beyond his wildest dreams .He had a good run .

    • I think he was better than fairly good. But his gift was elusive – most especially to himself. He knew when he had it and when he didn’t. Many of his recordings – not just the Schumann that I mentioned – had much trial and error. And he happened to have a very good day in the right place (Moscow).
      What I can’t get over is how evergreen his fame was. Our culture tends to turn the age on a lot of famous people. But when he retired (and really asked for the page to be turned), he was still “Van Cliburn” in capital letters. I don’t even have a theory on this one!

    • Also, keep in mind that before winning Tchaikovsky Competition, Cliburn had also won other significant prizes and had made concerto debuts with the NY Philharmonic and Pittsburgh SO. dps

  6. Martin Bookspan says:

    Thanks, David, for that perceptive, insightful article.

    All best.

  7. Thank you for this article. I had never heard of Slenczynska before. Spent this morning listening to some of her few available recordings. Her playing was quite remarkable. Too bad she never achieved the same level of fame as the others.

  8. Lotte Lehmann always liked to speak of her three careers: opera, Lieder and teaching. She, of course, dabbled in others: writing, and art. Working right now on a Music and Arts 3-CD set of her mostly radio broadcasts, I’m struck by the impact that an audience had on her. Her studio recordings are fine and sound spontaneous, but in her second career of Lieder, as broadcast from New York’s Town Hall, she is truly spectacular.

  9. Martin Cohn says:

    Thanks, David, for this interesting and thoughtful article. I have always wondered how performing musicians stay artistically fresh in middle age when there seems to be something in your very genes that makes you want to do the same things the same way over and over again. Recently some musicians I know told me that it was teaching younger people that kept them artistically fresh.

    I also have a question about the article. You talk about Istomin bedeviling conductors with his free and very flexible tempi. I have never heard him play a concerto, but he certainly made many chamber music recordings — some with Casals, some with Stern — and I’ve never notices this waywardness you talked about? Could you explain in more detail?

    Best regards,

    • Most of Istomin’s recordings were made quite early on. I’m talking about his playing in the early-80s. Please understand that I’m in sympathy with that kind of flexibility, but it just wasn’t done then (or now, really). I was on casual terms with a conductor who worked with Istomin during that period. I was thrilled the performance, but the conductor groused, “With his tempi I saw my life pass before my eyes.”

  10. Very interesting take on Mr. Cliburn and how, in a sense, he ‘froze’ interpretively. I would never have thought that as an analysis, but it makes perfect sense as you describe it. I actually caught one of his concerts on his 2nd comeback @1994, and the technical slips were rather sad. Not many, admittedly, but enough to notice. He did also serve as narrator for Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” in the same concert. Still, I got to see him live once. It would be interesting if those unreleased RCA recordings in the vaults could be publicly released for sale.

    PS: BTW, very nice obituary of Wolfgang Sawallisch that you wrote for ‘The Guardian’. For those who haven’t seen it:

    PPS: Your colleague at the ‘Inquirer’, on his blog, seems rather not to allow comments that don’t toe the altekakker line. Don’t know if you noticed.

  11. We are fascinated and also interested in what you really are currently talking about right here.

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