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In his last days, a private recital for Van Cliburn

April 05, 2013|By Donna Perlmutter
  • Violinist Joshua Bell, left, and pianist Sam Haywood gave a private performance for Van Cliburn days before his death.
Violinist Joshua Bell, left, and pianist Sam Haywood gave a private performance… (Photographs by, from left:…)

Pianist Van Cliburn, who died of bone cancer Feb. 27, did not go in for routine blandishments -- no matter that he was a paragon of Southern gentlemanliness.

 “But I’m a great audience,” he told me some years ago, explaining how he would rather “sit back and enjoy the artistry of others” than perform himself. Indeed, that desire did not go unrequited. Days before his death and an hour before their Fort Worth recital, Joshua Bell and his piano accompanist Sam Haywood visited Cliburn at his home near the Bass Performance Hall, knowing the end was near.

It all came about when the two arrived in town and learned the legendary pianist would be unable to attend their concert, part of the Cliburn Concert series. So Bell offered to visit at the house. The music would come to Muhammad.

“I put it out there,” the violinist said by phone from New York, “not sure he wanted us, but the word was he loved the idea.” An administrator drove them to Cliburn’s estate. They found him sitting in a living room the size of a hotel lobby amid a sea of sofas.

“He was wearing a baseball cap,” Bell said,  “and looked frail, but very sweet, with a sort of child-like enthusiasm when we asked what he would like us to play. ‘Tchaikovsky,’ he said. ‘I love him.’”

They played that composer’s “Mélodie” from “Souvenir d’un Lieu  Cher,” which Bell described as “tinged with tender melancholy and went on to say “it was so moving for me to play for him. He was very teary, emotional, listening to it.”

That connection with the music as performed by others was typical in better days, as well.  

 “He did not want to be in the spotlight himself,” said conductor John Giordano, jury chairman of the Cliburn Competition, who had been associated with the pianist for 40 years. “And that attitude fit this very self-effacing, humble guy.”

Throughout a career of sold-out stadiums and arenas and record-breaking album sales -- precipitated by the tall Texan’s winning the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow and his return to New York as a national hero, where he earned a ticker tape parade down Broadway -- Cliburn took a number of sabbaticals. He called these exits from the stage “intermissions.”

“The only time you can really luxuriate in the music is when you’re listening to some virtuoso taking pains to create musical illusions. That’s not possible when you’re the performer,” Cliburn had told me. Always the reluctant star, he remained in the end,  “a great audience” for the duo who finally played for him.


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