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‘A part of me is always in the audience’: Van Cliburn, remembered by his closest collaborator

Richard Rodzinski, general director of the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, was formerly (1986-2009) director of the Van Cliburn Foundation and one of the pianist’s most trusted allies. We asked him for a reminiscence of his friend. Here are Richard’s impressions of the private side of a great artist:

richard rodzinski

Strolling through a resplendent, formal renaissance garden on a recent
Easter morning under a brilliant Texas sky, Van Cliburn stood tall, lean,
and elegant in his customary dark suit. His gentle expression betrayed
profound concentration as he absorbed every nuance of the beauty the garden
was created to offer. He relished the effulgent colors, inhaled deeply the perfumes of roses and boxwoods, and savored the harmony of the artfully
designed layout. As he spoke quietly in his dark mellifluous warm baritone,
he imparted his genuine sense of awe and admiration for the achievement of
the visionary planners and artisans who made this exquisite corner of
paradise possible.

With a broad gesture, sweeping his long, thin fingers across the landscape, he proceeded to express his appreciation for those who have the love of that which is beautiful as well as the will and means to foster its creation. He dwelled upon the enlightened civic leaders of ancient Greece whose vision led to the building of immortal temples and of the creation of statues which have served as models and inspirations for generations. He spoke of the great patrons of the renaissance, such prosperous families as the Medicis, the Sforzas, and the Strozzis, whose passion for beauty gave us the glorious works of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello, and on and on.

And then Van spoke of music-of his beloved Chopin, of Tchaikovsky, of Rachmaninoff, and of all timeless musical literature-solo, orchestral, operatic-that came into being thanks to the devotion of refined benefactors who recognized and were able to appreciate the genius of those exalted

As concert pianist, Van, during his long performing career had always been reaching out to what he terms “the invisible architecture of music” and
bringing it to life through his God-given gift and his piano. Van had often said that during a concert a part of him must be in the audience for it was
for them that he limned every note, every phrase, with a loving care that revealed his total commitment to crafting a gift which is at once beautiful
and communicative. Nevertheless, memorable and enthralling as these performances may be, they were evanescent, ephemeral. Not that Van didn’t appreciate the transitory-be it an evening with friends or a night at the opera. However, Van balanced his life with an exceptional attachment and affection for that which is timeless. And for Van that which is truly beautiful is forever.

Van was the very personification of an aesthete. On entering his home, one is immediately made aware of being in the residence of a sophisticated collector possessing a highly informed connoisseurship and the most refined of tastes. He was clearly a man who relished surrounding himself with beautiful masterpieces crafted by artists as inspired as he was while music flowed from his fingers during a magnificent recital.

President Putin and Van jpg


Not long ago, Van returned to Moscow for a very much anticipated concert. Upon arrival, he was at once immersed in three days of whirlwind activities-rehearsals, friends to visit, his hotel suite filled day andnight with well-wishers, bringing flowers, caviar and champagne. The
triumphant performance of the Tchaikovsky and Liszt concerti over, Van, exhausted yet exhilarated, returned to his suite once again filled with
friends. At about four o’clock in the morning, he quietly slipped into his bedroom where a small upright practice piano had been nestled in a corner. A few of his friends followed him as he began to play one piece by Chopin after another. Perhaps he may have been playing in part for himself but his unbridled generosity of spirit much more importantly made him want to share the beauty of the music with those of us standing next to him. It was a very beautiful gift indeed.

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  1. Blake Richardson says:

    When/where is this article from?

  2. richardcarlisle says:

    A wondrously fitting tribute… greatly appreciated.

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