Friday, March 8, 2013

The right place and time

Some people are lucky enough to be at exactly the right place at the right time. It certainly didn’t seem like the right time to be an American at the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. It hardly seemed like the right time to become a superstar by being a classical pianist.

In the late 1950s, America was competing with the Soviets and not doing particularly well at it. Our rockets kept blowing up and we needed engineers, physicists, mathematicians and chemists to catch up with the Russians, whose rockets were not blowing up. When the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite on Oct. 4, 1957, U.S. citizens feared that schools in the U.S.S.R were superior to American schools, and Congress reacted by passing the National Defense Education Act to bring U.S. schools up to speed. Money poured into the hard sciences. 

With the unpleasant “beep, beep” of Sputnik reminding Americans of danger from the deep darkness of space, it wasn’t the time to be an anthropologist or a philosopher, much less a classical pianist.

But in those Cold War years, there was another sound, a magnificent sound, a sound created by the artistry, the soul and the skill of a 23-year-old piano virtuoso named Van Cliburn. Playing at Tchaikovsky Hall, Cliburn stunned the musical world with his performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” and Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” In the capital of our global adversaries, his performance received an eight-minute standing ovation, won him the new prize and propelled him to international fame. 

It has been reported that because Cliburn was American, Soviet Premier Khrushchev was asked if the American could be granted first prize. “Is he the best?” Khrushchev responded. That day, in that place, he was the best, and the Russians gave him the prize.

Few of us can name any other winner of the 13 Tchaikovsky competitions held since, yet Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time that honor has been accorded a classical musician. Make no mistake that there were mixed motives for the hundred thousand people who lined Broadway for that parade. It would be an overreach to suggest that a piano competition between Russians and Americans brought peace to the world. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the construction of the Berlin Wall would soon overwhelm this rare moment. 

Van Cliburn died this week at 78. It would be nice to think that this affable, handsome and extremely talented musician will be remembered for his gift to humanity of beauty and truth, important in our national life and even more important to our national soul.

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