Cliburn was a rock star of classical music. The lanky Texan won the very first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of the Cold War. He was an American hero; he got a ticker-tape parade.
Years later, after Cliburn had become rich and famous, he chose to live in my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, where he went to church, attended countless gala events and frequently ate at the Ol’ South Pancake House at 3 a.m.
He was like the Prince of Fort Worth. Everybody knew him. Everybody loved him. Everybody called him Van — just Van.
He was the most charismatic person I have ever encountered. The first time I met him, he shook my hand — oh, his hands were huge — asked after my well-being, probably asked after my family. I felt like the center of the universe.
I only heard him play once. Traveled some 300 miles to do it.
He played in Anniston once. It was in 1975 — three years before he took a 16-year hiatus from the concert stage. He performed for the season finale of the Knox Concert Series. He’d already had to reschedule once because of illness. Then his plane was delayed, and he was an hour late to the concert.
That was so Van. He ran late a lot. Once, he was supposed to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the opening of Texas Motor Speedway. He was supposed to arrive in the infield via helicopter, but there were a scheduling mix-up and he was left stranded at the airport.
The year I was born, the piano teachers of Fort Worth started a piano competition in Van’s honor. Today, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held every four years, is one of the most prestigious contests in the world.
I fell in love with the piano at age 8, and spent a good part of my adolescence at Cliburn competitions, listening to hours and hours of music and collecting autographs from the competitors, who came from all over the world.
During the 1977 competition, I developed a serious crush on a big, burly Russian competitor named Alexander Toradze. I had my picture taken with him. I made a T-shirt with his face on it. I was a 14-year-old piano geek.
Twelve years later, I was covering the competition as a journalist. My first-ever front-page story was about the piano tuners.
I covered the competition again in 1993, and again in 1997. I didn’t get to cover the 2001 competition because I was nine months pregnant, although the newspaper did call me in as a consultant. I actually went into labor as I was sending out emails to reporters. My husband had to wait impatiently for me to finish before I’d let him drive me to the hospital.
The 50th anniversary Cliburn competition will be held in May and June this year. I feel a road trip coming on.
Contact Lisa Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.