He was the talk of the classical music world, as idolized as any pop star, and an unwitting player in the geopolitical struggle between the two superpowers of the 20th century.
He was pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013), the “long-legged young Texan” from the small town of Kilgore, who, at age 23 in 1958, was the surprise winner of Moscow’s inaugural Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, which Isacoff (A Natural History of the Piano, 2012, etc.), a musician and Wall Street Journal contributor, calls “a high-culture version of the World Cup.” In retrospect, Cliburn’s victory may not have been that big a surprise. This was a young man whose piano-teacher mother, Rildia Bee, would “playfully suspend him over the keys of the piano” when he was a child. That he resisted the temptation to pound on the keys was, to Rildia Bee, “a sign of unusual sensitivity.” She was right. Soon, he was studying at Juilliard with famed piano teacher Rosina Lhévinne, entertaining audiences on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show in 1955, and, three years later, performing a rendition of Rachmaninoff’s famously difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 that inspired members of the competition’s jury to proclaim that Cliburn had a “Russian soul.” Isacoff does an excellent job documenting suspicions of corruption in the competition and the result’s effect on U.S.–Soviet relations. He gets sidetracked, however, with details about the other students, and there are extraneous passages that fail to enlighten—e.g., Truman Capote’s dissatisfaction with a Leningrad hotel in 1955. Nonetheless, the author offers a touching portrait of Cliburn, a natural performer who received injections of an amphetamine-laced “miracle tissue regeneration” to combat nervousness-induced weight loss and whose nonchalance and lack of curiosity—he was a poor student and was chronically late, even to his own performances—were primary reasons that he never again reached the heights of his early success.
A moving if uneven biography of a man whose career was marked by moving and uneven performances.