The name of pianist Van Cliburn—the first American to win the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958—remains alive with the international piano competition named after him.
This year, 290 applications were received out of which 146 were selected for live Screening Auditions in London, Hannover, Budapest, Moscow, Seoul, New York, and Fort Worth, where they were heard by a screening jury of five accomplished, highly regarded pianists (Dmitri Alexeev, Russia; Michel Beroff, France; Janina Fialkowska, Poland/Canada; James Parker, Canada; and Pamela Mia Paul, United States).
Indeed, the competition attracts the world’s most promising piano talents to Fort Worth, Texas to compete for the coveted Cliburn gold medal. For the first time in its history, the 17-day competition will culminate on the big screen with concerto performances by six finalists accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Leonard Slatkin.
The Boston Globe once called The Cliburn “a cross between the Miss America Pageant, the Olympic Games, the Academy Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize.”
By coincidence, the American pianist who died in 2013 was a frequent Manila visitor and probably the first classical pianist to perform at the Araneta Coliseum with the CCP Philharmonic, now known as the Philippine Philharmonic.
Fourteen years after the ticker-tape parade in honor of a classical pianist that beat Russian pianists, Cliburn was one of the visitors of Imelda Romualdez Marcos when she was hospitalized after an assassin tried to kill her with a bolo during a speaking engagement in 1972.
The friendship between the former first lady and the American pianist blossomed to such heights the latter agreed to give a fund-raising concert for the benefit of young talented Filipino musicians.
When Cliburn arrived in Manila in the early ‘70s for such a concert, the one who gave him the welcome bouquet at the airport was no other than Cecile Licad, Mrs. Marcos favorite prodigy.
That Cliburn concert was able to generate funds for the Young Artists Foundation, which funded several aspiring musicians among them Licad, Rowena Arrieta, Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz, the Bolipata brothers and Noel Velasco, among others.
In another fund-raising concert at the Araneta Coliseum with the CCP orchestra (now the PPO), Cliburn played the Tchaikovsky Concerto without the benefit of a rehearsal. The pianist was stuck in Leyte with the former First Lady and arrived in Manila just in time for the concert, after which then CCP President Lucrecia Kasilag greeted Cliburn and orchestra conductor Luis Valencia backstage saying, “Amazing how this concerto went very well without a rehearsal.”
To be sure, the international piano competition carrying Cliburn’s name has Filipino connections. Two Filipino musicians—the late conductor Luis Valencia and National Artist for Music and Kasilag—were once invited to be in the jury of this competition.
But so far, only one Filipino pianist made it in this competition: Iloilo-born Ma. Luis Lopez Vito who placed fourth in the 1966 edition of the Van Cliburn Competition with Romania’s sensational Radu Lupu as the first prize winner. On the other hand, two of the top prizewinners, Brazilian Cristina Ortiz and American Steven de Groote, had performed at the CCP to great audience reception.
Like Licad, Cliburn was a recipient of the Leventritt Gold Medal along with another frequent Manila visitor, Gary Graffman.
Reflecting on his 1958 musical triumph in a PBS interview where the topic shifted to Time Magazine describing him as the Texan who conquered Russia, Cliburn didn’t consider the event a big deal.
He said, “If they appreciate what you did—I am so grateful, because Russians were wonderful to me. They were such great audiences; I cannot begin to tell you. I didn’t conquer anything. As a matter of fact, they conquered my heart.”
By coincidence, Cliburn appeared many years back in the cartoon, Iron Man playing himself in the episode “Silence My Companion, Death My Destination.”