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Van Cliburn Talks About Fame
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Author: Brian Wise
90-minute interview

The 90-minute interview began as NYPL director of programs Paul Holdengräber asked Cliburn about his childhood and especially his piano teacher mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan (the 1912 Steinway piano he inherited from her is to be included in Thursday’s auction). 

The pianist talked about how his mother encouraged him to listen to recordings of singers from an early age. “It’s amazing how to make a percussion instrument like the piano, a lyrical instrument, and that’s the thrust of what my mother used to tell me.” He remembered attending a performance of Carmen at age four and later hearing the American pianist William Kapell at Lewisohn Stadium in New York, which stoked his passion for the piano.

The audience was shown video footage from Cliburn's winning performance at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, after which Cold War America embraced the 23-year-old like a rock star. Cliburn recalled being paid equally in rubles and dollars, half of which he donated to the City of New York upon receiving a ticker tape parade.

Cliburn remembered the Moscow audiences, who were "very educated" about classical music, though he knew better than to discuss politics with them.

A charming conversationalist, Cliburn is known to reveal few secrets about what it felt like to be a folk hero or the immense pressure he shouldered during his glory years. Indeed, he deflected some of Holdengräber's more probing questions with the meandering tales of a practiced raconteur.

But the evening also contained some unexpectedly candid moments. After about 30 minutes, the pianist Joyce Yang, a silver medalist at the 2005 Van Cliburn Competition, came on stage to perform some Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

Suddenly, Cliburn choked up and was unable to continue talking, apparently overcome by Yang’s performance. A few minutes later Cliburn laughed and apologized, clarifying his response. “With great music, it’s so beyond any of us and you feel like you’ve been transported and somehow redeemed,” he said. "It's just so overwhelming.”

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