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Bear-Hug Time : Pianist Cliburn Practices His Brand of Summitry

December 10, 1987|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — "It was just wonderful--an evening full of nostalgia," pianist Van Cliburn said at 3 a.m. Wednesday, just hours after he had played for the Reagans and the Gorbachevs at the White House. His voice was high-pitched and quick-paced with excitement.

It had been quite a night of summitry, not only for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev but also for the boyish 53-year-old pianist, who had been shown simultaneously on ABC-TV's "Nightline" and on the Soviet morning show "Ninety Minutes" at the piano and in a bear hug with the Soviet leader.

"He kissed me three times (on both cheeks) and that's very significant in Russia (for friendship)," Cliburn told The Times by telephone early Wednesday. He indicated he was still a bit heady and unable to sleep.

Cliburn, who became a household name in the Soviet Union as well as the toast of America and a major international musical star after winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow on April14, 1958--the first American to do so--also said how delighted he was to see some of his old Russian friends again. He noted he had already arranged to see a few of them at the Willard Hotel here later Wednesday.

The pianist, who wore white-tie for the occasion, further exhibited his own brand of summitry by playing and then singing, in Russian, the traditional Russian folk song, "Moscow Nights."

That moment came after the official performance had ended, and Raisa Gorbachev told him: "It's a pity there's no orchestra because then you could play Tchaikovsky." According to one of those at the event, pool reporter Michael Kilian, cultural correspondent and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Cliburn replied in Russian, "Well, we have no orchestra, but with your help we can do something."

Then, Kilian noted, Cliburn "went to the piano and began playing, and singing flawlessly in Russian. He sang a few bars and Gorbachev broke into this huge smile and applauded and began singing in tune. And Mrs. Gorbachev jumped in right with them, and a few minutes later all the other Russians in the room sang too and they went into a second verse. It is a song of nostalgia for the streets of Russia, a homesick song."

A bit of the playing and singing of "Moscow Nights" was also shown simultaneously on "Nightline" and on "Ninety Minutes."

Tuesday's White House dinner also marked a special occasion for Cliburn--his first public performance in almost 10 years.

After a concert in Toledo, Ohio, in 1978, Cliburn stunned the musical world by dropping out, neither doing any recordings or giving concerts. He later said he was "taking an intermission." Questions surrounded Cliburn's decision, which he never quite answered. Was he tired? Had he burned out?

Those questions remained unanswered Wednesday.

Cliburn was invited by the White House because of the Tchaikovsky honor nearly 30 years ago. "It just seemed to be a natural choice," said Betsy Koons, deputy press secretary to First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Cliburn's prize came at a time when Americans suddenly found themselves taking second place to the Soviets in science. Cliburn, who had been bear-hugged by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, was instantly dubbed the "American Sputnik."

At the White House Tuesday night, after he finished the official part of the program, Cliburn alluded to his period of retirement, saying he needed to take time off.

"A time comes in life when one must take a rest," he told his audience. Then he quoted the late Russian pianist Emil Gilels, who Cliburn said told him: " 'You are smart to realize that one must take time to smell the flowers.' "

"Very few things are as meaningful to me," Cliburn said referring to his retirement period. "I love my own country," he added. "I wish for the health of Texas . . . I have taken time to smell the flowers."

But the pianist kept to himself whether he intends to play again publicly. And at the Van Cliburn Foundation in Forth Worth, Tex., a secretary said Wednesday: "That has not been told to us definitely." (Cliburn lives in Fort Worth with his 90-year-old mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, who was his first piano teacher and career mentor.)

Cliburn's evening began Tuesday by playing of the American and Soviet national anthems, then playing Brahms' Intermezzo, Opus 118, No.6; Rachmaninoff's "Etude-Tableau," Opus 39, No. 5; "Widmung" by Schumann-Liszt, and as a finale Debussy's "L'Isle Joyeuse."

Altogether, the concert lasted about 30 minutes.

According to the Tribune's Kilian, Cliburn sounded "very rusty at first" and played the Brahms piece "very, very ploddingly." The pianist was "slow, cautious," he said.

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