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Van Cliburn's unusual night at the Hollywood Bowl

February 27, 2013|By Christopher Smith
  • Van Cliburn pauses before performing an "encore" piece during an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl.
Van Cliburn pauses before performing an "encore" piece during… (Tara Farrell / Associated…)

Van Cliburn, the world-famous pianist who died Wednesday, made several appearances in Los Angeles through the years, including one unforgettable night at the Hollywood Bowl.

A 1994 appearance at the Bowl tied to the World Cup soccer final and leading into the pianist's 60th birthday was a confusing shambles in front of 14,000-plus audience members.

The July 11 program promised to be an exciting pairing of two taxing pieces, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto -- vehicles that had put Cliburn on the map in 1958.

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The Tchaikovsky went shakily, but at least it went. Then came an intermission that lasted almost an hour, with, unaccountably, Johnny Mathis popping his head around the side of the stage and peering out at the audience before disappearing. Finally, a vague announcement came over the P.A. system from Los Angeles Philharmonic impresario Ernest Fleischman: He said Cliburn was “feeling slightly indisposed.”

The Times’ music critic, Martin Bernheimer, reported what happened next.

“Finally, at 10:32 p.m., the pianist re-emerged, but instead of playing the Rachmaninoff he apologized, said he had felt 'light-headed,' had endured 'a dizzy spell' and instead played four short solo pieces. At 10:53 ...  he said good night: 'I can't tell you how much you have inspired and thrilled me.'

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“Then he was ambushed onstage by a couple of guys in Texas mufti: singer Johnny Mathis and pop-record producer David Foster. They bore a monstrous birthday card in the shape of a piano. It was signed, they proclaimed, by Ron Reagan and Neil Simon, among others. Foster manned the piano while Mathis placed his cowboy hat on Cliburn's head and led the throng in a slightly premature chorus of 'Happy Birthday.' "

Subsequent demands by audience members for refunds were not met. Organizers later announced that since the pianist had played past intermission it constituted a full concert.

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In successive years, live Van Cliburn sightings were more rumored than reality. It was another eight years before he made his final local appearance, and even that scheduled performance, with the New West Symphony, suffered from unfortunate timing, as it was scheduled for 11 days after the 9/11 attacks.

The concert ultimately took place in Thousand Oaks in February 2002, with the pianist again playing his default piece, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.

Times reviewer Daniel Cariaga wrote that the piece “began nervously ... but settled in by the middle of the first movement, which went well but never achieved its true spontaneity.” Cliburn's playing picked up, however, and the audience awarded him a standing ovation.

It was his last public concert in Southern California.

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