NEW YORK -- The couple made the trip from their home in Cape Cod to Rockefeller University in Manhattan, listening intently this week as the latest generation of pianists competed for a chance in the 2013 Cliburn International Piano Competition.
As was the case with others in the New York City audience for the Cliburn auditions, Richard Casper and his wife, Elizabeth Carr, are both pianists themselves. But their presence was based on more than a shared love of the instrument.
Their affinity for the Cliburn, in fact, dated to a time before the competition even existed, to the 1950s at the Juilliard School in New York, when Casper and Van Cliburn himself were classmates in the piano department.
"I met him before Moscow, when he was just the most talented kid at Juilliard, instead of the most famous pianist in the world," Casper said, referring to Cliburn's 1958 triumph at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia, which stunned the world at the height of the Cold War. "He was just a good guy. He might have been the nicest guy at Juilliard, somebody you could trust in what I would call a hyper-competitive environment."
"People were always glad to find something bad to say about somebody," Casper said. "Van never had anything bad to say about anyone, or anything good to say about himself."
Carr later became friends with Cliburn through her husband.
"He was just a wonderful colleague to all pianists. He never changed. He was always the same," she said. "Even if there was a year and a thousand miles between us, when we would see him, it was as if no time had passed."
They spoke in the lobby of Caspary Auditorium at Rockefeller, where the Cliburn's New York auditions continue through today. Their memories of Van Cliburn were shared this week between some magical piano performances, music which clearly delighted Casper and his wife. But there is also sadness this year, following the news that Cliburn, now in his late 70s, is battling advanced bone cancer at his home near Fort Worth.
Casper and Carr came to Texas for the 2001 competition at Cliburn's personal invitation, and the couple was immediately infatuated with both the quadrennial event and the people they met in Fort Worth. That helps explain why they have attended each set of New York auditions since, and will be in attendance at Bass Hall for all three weeks of the competition that begins in May. This trip will be different.
"I'm sure Van is out of the competition forever," Casper said. "It will take some of the fun out of it. But we'll go and hope for the best."
Casper and his wife are both native New Yorkers who met at Carnegie Hall attending piano concerts. Casper's own keyboard prowess landed him a coveted spot at Juilliard, where he met the gangly young man who grew up in Louisiana and Texas. He and Cliburn became friends in the cafeteria, where most of the social life at the famed school took place.
But it was Cliburn's playing that most drew Casper to him, artistry imbued with the same trademark generosity of spirit, Casper said.
"It's the inability to define it that also makes it hard to duplicate, to teach or to learn," Casper said. "You just got it or you ain't. And that drove some people at Juilliard nuts. That was what made him so popular in Russia, and distinguished him from the rest of the piano crowd."
After Juilliard, their career paths sharply diverged but the friendship remained. Casper and Carr both taught piano, and became administrators in cultural organizations. In 1976, while with the Cape Cod Conservatory, they convinced Cliburn to perform for the dedication of a new building there. On Saturday afternoon before the concert that evening, they still had not heard from him. Cliburn answered his telephone when Casper called, still in his New York apartment.
"Do you think we ought to cancel?" Cliburn asked Casper.
"Van, you get your ass up here, or you're going to be a puddle on 57th Street," Casper remembered telling him. "It's a sold-out hall."
Cliburn quickly got to his private plane, but couldn't land in Cape Cod because of fog. He rented a car in Rhode Island and drove himself the rest of the way. Casper and his wife met him at the car.
"He was still getting into his tuxedo," Casper said. "He walks right up the steps, down the center aisle, and steps onto the stage."
"And he sat down and started playing--the Star Spangled Banner," Carr said.
"And he played wonderfully," her husband remembered.
"After the reception, Van said, 'I'd just like to talk a little bit,'" Carr said. "He sits down on the floor, and we were still there at 4 a.m.. It was just quintessential Van."
While performing in Boston in 2001, Cliburn met up with his friends and invited them to attend that year's competition in Fort Worth , which was to begin a few months later.
"You know, we're not getting any younger," Cliburn told them.
The couple decided to come for the semifinals.
"We were both still working, and there was no way we could come for the whole three weeks," Casper said. "We thought that the semifinals would be most interesting. Well, it was absolutely fascinating and the people were so nice. It was just so much fun, and then we went home."
His wife took up the story.
"When we got home, he was looking at me, and I was looking at him, and we were both miserable," Carr said. "And he said, 'I just called the airport.' We were back in Fort Worth the next day."
They returned for all three weeks of the 2005 and 2009 competitions, seeing Van Cliburn here and there around the hall.
"Van was working at those competitions. Everyone wanted to see him," Casper said.
"We weren't going to intrude on that, but we would see him at the occasional dinner, or during intermissions."
From that first trip, the Cliburn competition became a cherished hallmark of the couple's lives, a time every four years that couldn't come fast enough.
"We stay at the [Renaissance] Worthington and we have what we call the eighth floor jury," Carr said. "Every morning the arguments that go on up there [about pianists in the competition.] It's so much fun."
The debates will begin again in May. But this time, the competition will likely go on without its namesake.
"I try not to think about it," Casper said of Cliburn's illness, pausing to gather his emotions. "It will take some of the luster. I don't know what it's going to be like. None of us really know, and I'm sure that's true for the people of Fort Worth.
He said he had a message for his ailing friend.
"The message would be just to thank him for who he is. Thank him for how he is," Casper said. "That's the essence of it."
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544