[Several years ago I had the pleasure of reviewing a performance of renowned pianist, Van Cliburn. On this special 50th Anniversary of his 1958 Moscow triumph in the Soviet Union’s first International Tchaikovsky Competition, I would like to again share the story of one special night with Van Cliburn.]
The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion had a thunderous reception for the recent Houston Symphony concert featuring renowned pianist, Van Cliburn. Meanwhile, Mother Nature generously provided real thunder. And, oh yes, lightning was provided at no extra cost. But the real fireworks would be flashing from the talented fingers of Mr. Cliburn.
Before his entrance, fans were treated to Rimsky Korsakov’s Introduction and Wedding March from “Le coq d’or.” The thrilling brass opening was a call to attention for the storm-weary crowd. Flashes of lightning peppered the exotic opening strains, which seemed almost an accompaniment to the distant rolling thunder. Conductor William Eddins looked crisp and elegant in black-tie and formal white jacket. The piece continued to gently build in excitement until its bursts of energy and power made me think it would be a perfect candidate for Disney’s next edition of “Fantasia.”
Dvorak’s “Symphony No, 7 in D Minor, Opus 70” was next on the bill. Eddins conducts the first movement’s Allegro maestoso with all the flourish and excitement of a finale. The comprehensive excellence of this great American orchestra was beautifully displayed in this many-textured movement. With magnificent punctuation from the brass and woodwinds, the strings had a marvelous showcase here. The second movement’s “Poco adagio,” began in a seductive whisper that coaxed a wayward bird (or bat) out of the stage rafters for a brief, gentle flight in perfect tempo above the orchestra. The woodwinds and brass seemed to visualize a shimmering sunrise and the dawning of a new day. More distant lightning bolts gave the appearance of arranging themselves so as to not allow further thunder during the full richness of the movement’s tender conclusion.
The final movements, “Scherzo: Vivace,” and “Finale: Allegro,” began with a melodic theme of sweeping grandeur. The engineers had the acoustics just right. Don’t even try to find stereo components that can duplicate this clarity of sound. Our conductor frequently appeared close to “lift-off” on his podium launch pad. He seemed to hop about in his enthusiasm, sometimes on one foot, as though in a ballet. The symphonic results were thrilling.
Following intermission, Mr. Cliburn took to the stage to perform Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” (His recording of this piece was the first classical record to ever go platinum.) With his ample height, he was elegant and imposing as he gracefully approached the keyboard to more applause than most artists would receive at the end of a performance. The thrilling opening strains, and the artists keyboard pyrotechnics, provoked yet another of the evening’s skyward thunderbolts. Cliburn’s crisp, dazzling execution of the first movement’s opening solo moments riveted audience attention to a stage where, clearly, something very important was happening. The orchestral sweep surrounding the pianist was on the same plane of excellence. Now conductor, Eddins was more restrained of movement, so as not to distract from the center ring attraction. Cliburn was weaving a magic spell with technical brilliance that was full of real emotion. This was an athletic event, and this room full of Texans seemed to fully understand that fact. The performer was intensely focused, and, from moment to moment, had an uncanny ability for subtle shifts in this intensity, as he captured perfectly the enormous variations of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.
Next we had the pure and gentle relief of the second movement, “Andantino Semplice.” With a sweetly recurring theme at its rich core, it required this master’s touch of understatement, but was still dazzling in its delicate complexity.
The third movement, “Allegro con fuoco,” was sumptuously romantic. Cliburn’s hands display such fluidity that they defy belief. How, we wonder, does the human brain approach such heights of technical brilliance?
Now the real thunder of the evening was the tumultuous ovation of the frenzied audience. It brought both conductor and soloist back to the stage repeatedly until an encore was necessary for crowd control. Mr. Cliburn graciously returned to the piano, and in a moment the frenzy gave way to awe as he supplied not one, but two haunting solo encores for his appreciative fans. No one enjoyed them more than his fellow musicians on the stage. Perhaps they understood, better than the rest of us, the depth of the genius at the keyboard.