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Remembering Van Cliburn

Posted 10:16am on Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2012

UPDATE: Van Cliburn died Wednesday morning, Feb. 27, 2013 at the age of 78. This appreciation was published in September 2012, shortly after Cliburn's illness was reported.

* * *

"Hello, Van," I yelped excitedly from across the traffic din of Fort Worth's Commerce Street, in front of the west side entrance to Bass Hall.

I was pretty sure Van Cliburn would return the impromptu greeting as, by this time, he had come to recognize me as one of the battalion of Star-Telegram reporters assigned to cover the international piano competition that proudly wore his name.

"Well, hello there, Andrew," he replied in that smoke-and-honey baritone, as he ambled toward me.

To be honest, my physical hearing of his response was muffled by the fact that my ears, indeed, my entire head, had become enveloped in the gabardine wool of Van's royal blue blazer.

It was happening. I was in the grips of the famous Van-hug -- where hands the length of canoe paddles cradle your shoulders, while gently tugging you in with a sun-like gravitational force.

If all of my interviews as a senior writer for the Star-Telegram had commenced with one of Van's patented bear-hugs, I wouldn't have been able to muster one contrarian or challenging question. Fortunately for my professional objectivity, only Van owned the copyright on how to totally inform, charm and disarm even the most jaded of journalists.

Fifty or so years before my last meeting with Van, I was born on Dec. 16, 1957 -- Beethoven's birthday. And I was weaned on Isaac Stern's ultimate interpretation of Beethoven's violin concerto.

After wearing out that bit of classical vinyl, another great work soon replaced it: Van Cliburn's landmark studio recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, the one that cemented his extraordinary triumph at the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. The one that launched the then-23-year-old artist into the pantheon of cultural superstars.

I remember constantly listening to that powerful and haunting recording, always while cradling the album jacket, like some sort of security blanket. It had a picture of a lean Cliburn, with a haystack of curly brown hair shooting up like an exclamation point, as he dominated the keyboard with his rangy arms and never-ending fingers.

When I heard that Van was suffering from late-stage bone cancer, I rummaged around and miraculously found that 50-year-old album -- lurking somewhere between Chopin and the Bee Gees in my hopelessly eclectic record collection. I held it in my arms like a reassuring talisman, hoping against hope that it might infuse Van with renewed strength, as it brought back memories of his more vigorous, younger days.

When I arrived in Fort Worth in 1999, the top item on my professional to-do list was to meet Van, which I did when I was assigned to cover what can only be described as Fort Worth's cultural Olympic Games: the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. I gladly volunteered for what would be numerous Van sighting stakeouts, planting myself at the west-facing stage door of Bass Hall. This was the designated area where most of the avid-eyed, international young pianists would arrive to begin their final preparations for their next competition performance.

It was also the well-established locale where Van's dark sedan would pull up and from which he would gently alight, looking to greet as many of the contestants as he could before slipping discreetly into the hall.

So when I finally encountered Van emerging from that car, his bearing was larger than life. His still-thick, silvering hair seemed halo-like. His wiry frame was sheathed in what I would come to recognize as his trademark armor of dark suit, a shirt as white as bleached driftwood and a perfectly knotted tie.

Standing in Van's aura, I was barely able to blurt out something approximating an introduction.

"Yes of course, I know who you are, Andrew," Van said, with not a whiff of artistic hauteur, but with a crescent smile as bright as a Broadway marquee.

And then he politely and sensitively answered my questions -- each response filled with a bubbling admiration of the young competitors who were aching to carry the grand musical torch Cliburn first lit so long ago.

Those fleeting moments with Van, before he swept into the labyrinthine recesses of the hall, only whetted my appetite for a more substantial audience with him. And I got my wish when he eventually invited me to his stately Westover Hills residence for a wonderfully meandering interview.

Van's home was as understatedly refined as the man himself. Each family heirloom and photo came housed in a silver frame. And each room was so perfectly proportioned that, very much like Van himself, they easily accommodated any number of guests, and, naturally, a grand piano -- his most loyal collaborator during his rich life.

It's always a dicey proposition spending some time with an idol, as they risk disappointing your every inflated expectation. I was genuinely apprehensive about engaging in such a long interview with Van. Would we both be so wary of each other -- after all, I was there as a probing journalist, not a musical compatriot nor family friend -- that the interview would produce one guarded response after another or, worse, painful moments of silence and inarticulateness?

Well, none of that came to pass. In the literally hundreds of interviews I would do in my 11 years at the Star-Telegram, Van's soared to the top of the list in terms of his high-wattage charisma and intoxicating ability to spin a yarn with eloquence and the ebullience of a giddy teenager.

"Oh, Andrew, have you never had the creamed corn or peas at the Ol' South Pancake House?" he asked incredulously -- responding to my question about what the private Van likes to do, or eat, to just unwind.

That his "creamed corn and peas" response came within seconds of one of his priceless stories populated with everyone from a European duke and a cantankerous conductor to a Hollywood starlet, a mysterious Russian plutocrat and, of course, multiple U.S. presidents neatly summed up the dazzling, yet ever-approachable Van Cliburn.

For me, Van will forever be about creamed corn at the Ol' South -- and the crème de la crème everywhere else.

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