Jeremy Denk’s recent solo piano recital at Bass Concert Hall took on an unintentional portent.
The celebrated New York-based pianist was making his first appearance in Austin. And Denk was the first to concertize in the Bass hall on “The Cornelia,” a new, nine-foot Steinway concert grand piano chosen to be the hall’s resident piano.
The new piano is a gift to the University of Texas venue from the Friedman children (Harry, Walker, Nita and Alan) in honor of their mother, Cornelia Friedman, a classical music supporter who was also key in starting the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth.
However, earlier in the day of Denk’s concert and “The Cornelia” Bass hall debut, news broke that Van Cliburn — the lanky Texas pianist who inadvertently became a Cold War hero — had passed away at age 78 in his Fort Worth home.
In her introduction at Denk’s recital, Kathy Panoff, executive director of UT’s Texas Performing Arts, acknowledged the day’s coincidental circumstances: Van Cliburn’s passing, “The Cornelia” and the pianist’s Lone Star legacy.
Cliburn, in fact, played Bass Concert Hall in 1997.
Later, Panoff reflected some more.
Van Cliburn “was a touchstone for change in the profile of the arts,” she said. “He represented the power of the arts to transcend politics. And his impact was lasting.”
Van Cliburn was just 23 in 1958 when he won the gold medal in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. It was the height of the Cold War, an anxious time in the United States. The Soviets had started the Tchaikovsky competition as a way to assert their cultural superiority. Just the year before, they had trumped the U.S. in scientific achievement by launching Sputnik, the first space satellite.
And then came Van Cliburn, a Texas-tall 6 feet 4 inches, with large hands that could span more than 12 piano keys. He performed an impassioned interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto and received an eight-minute standing ovation.
“He out-played the Russian pianists by playing a Russian composer in a very emotional and individualistic manner,” said Panoff, a trained classical musician herself. “It wasn’t how the Soviet players were taught to play.”
Cliburn’s victory catapulted him to instant fame. He received a ticker-tape parade in New York on his return from Moscow, the first and only classical musician to be so honored. And he garnered the kind of screaming adulation usually seen only by pop stars — Philadelphia fans tore off his limo door as he arrived at a concert.
Cliburn landed on the cover of Time magazine, netted a hefty recording contract and saw his record of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto skyrocket to the top of the charts and stay there.
Cliburn wasn’t just a morale booster for Cold War America. His victory resulted in a major boost for classical music and the arts in this country, arts leaders like Panoff point out.
“And he was from Texas, of all places. Not from a major city where you might expect a classical pianist to be from at that time,” Panoff said.
Yes, Cliburn had been educated at the Juilliard School. But, raised in Kilgore and taught piano as a youngster by his mother, he was the epitome of the polite and deferential all-American young man when he became a star.
And he brought classical music to millions, popularizing it for the nonelite and perhaps most importantly Americanizing a cultural art form that had heretofore seemed anything but American.
When the Cliburn Competition launched in 1962, it started a now 50-year tradition of bringing the world’s brightest and most hopeful young pianists and a goodly portion of the classical music media to — of all places — Texas.
The next Cliburn Competition takes place May 24 to June 9 when 30 pianists from 12 countries — including four from Russia — will compete.
“I think Cliburn did what all arts leaders today hope to do,” said Panoff. “Put the arts in the center of the popular attention, make it the middle of the discussion. Hopefully, the arts can stay in that center.”