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COVER STORY : Finally, a Return Engagement : Pianist Van Cliburn is hitting the concert trail, with his first stop at the Hollywood Bowl in 18 years. He's come a long way from the child prodigy who wowed the world

July 03, 1994|GRETA BEIGEL | Greta Beigel is a Times staff writer

"I don't like to practice, never have," Van Cliburn is saying in an interview. "But when I do get started at the piano, for the first 10 minutes I play scales, slowly. I've done this all my life."

As if to stress the importance of this regimen, Cliburn, arguably the most celebrated American pianist of his time, proceeds to demonstrate how scales should be played.

"Listen to the sounds you make," he instructs a visitor. "The sound of each tone will generate a response in you. It will give you energy." Then, drawing himself to his full 6-foot-4 height, he looks down and admonishes, "We both know you'll practice tonight, right?"

Practicing scales, and thirds and sixths and even 10ths, helped Cliburn maintain his technical mastery during a self-imposed exile from the concert platform that began in 1978 and ended nine years later when he accepted an invitation from President Reagan to perform at the White House.

"I didn't abandon the piano," he says of his much-publicized hiatus. "The piano was always there."

And so he played chamber music and pieces close to his heart, such as the Schubert sonatas, and went to the opera and hosted musical soirees for friends. It all has given the former child prodigy, who is about to turn 60, a much-needed perspective on life and recharged his energies to the point where he is ready to hit the road extensively for the first time in 16 years.

Cliburn opens a 16-city, six-week concert tour with the Moscow Philharmonic on Saturday at San Diego's Summer Pops Bowl and on July 11 visits the Hollywood Bowl, where he last appeared in 1976. Under Vassily Sinaisky, he'll perform Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto and the Tchaikovsky First, vehicles that propelled him to triumph--and instant stardom--at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow.

"I had been playing concerts since 1987 but not on a large scale or on a schedule," Cliburn explains. "Then everything just fell into my lap. The Moscow Philharmonic (the orchestra had accompanied Cliburn in the finals of the Tchaikovsky) contacted me and said they had this time open. Also, Mr. Sinaisky, who was an assistant to (the late) Kiril Kondrashin, is a wonderful conductor and a great musical personality. Everything fell into place."

On a visit to Los Angeles to promote the tour, Cliburn, slender and refined in a dark blue suit and red tie, meets with members of the media at a Beverly Hills hotel. He is surrounded by all sorts of managers, publicists, friends and agents, who graciously depart, one by one, when a private audience is requested.

Unfailingly courteous, Cliburn, hands clasped, dutifully answers questions, at times almost by rote. But he positively leaps to life when discussing things pianistic.

"Isn't playing the piano an interesting vocation," he muses.

But he fast becomes irritated when asked if his Tchaikovsky Concerto, played thousands of times in concert, and captured on an RCA Victor recording that has sold more than 3 million units, will reveal new insights in 1994?

"No, no, you don't do that," he says. "You carry with you all your experiences on stage and you build on that. Each performance is a rehearsal for the next one. Whatever I play in public I like, and if I learn something, it's not to play for this week or that week, but forever."

The impatience persists when it's suggested to Cliburn that perhaps the adulation that greeted his every move in the 1960s and 1970s, when he performed more than 100 concerts a year, had stymied his growth as an artist and led to his early withdrawal from the concert stage.

"That had nothing to do with it," he says. "Adulation is not a problem. It was a conscious thing for me to stop. I decided four years ahead. But you have to look back to where I came from. I grew up in a town (Kilgore, Tex.) with a population of 6,283, or whatever the roadside sign said. Everybody knew everybody. At 12, I played with the Houston Symphony and played here and there and people would come from all over to hear me. People were always a part of my life. I simply was selfish and wanted time for myself.

"I think people are just waking up to the fact that for Van Cliburn being on stage was not his raison d'etre. I love being at home and am a contented person. I love mundane things. I love family. My only regret is that I wish I could have had children and had a lovely wife. But it didn't happen. I feel if you have a child it is a tremendous responsibility, but it would have been fun. It would have been an important facet of life."

Clearly, the biggest influence in Cliburn's life remains his beloved 97-year-old mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, who was his teacher until he was 17 and who shares his vast home in Ft. Worth. On the day after his Bowl performance, Cliburn will fly there to join her in his birthday celebration.

"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," he says. "She is so sweet and vivacious and I just love her.

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