NEW YORK — THIS legendary pianist is currently playing his first tour in 16 years, and his return to New York was marked by a backstage drama that nearly overshadowed the performance.
Several days before the concert, his 97-year-old mother was taken gravely ill, and Van Cliburn canceled several appearances. At first he canceled the New York performance at the Metropolitan Opera House as well, but then he changed his mind and decided to play.
Saying that she would have wanted him to go on with the performance, Cliburn dedicated the evening to his mother, to whom he paid a moving tribute, at one point reciting a poem he had written. But the obvious emotion of the evening did nothing to hamper his playing: It roused the sold-out house, some of whom had paid as much as $150 a ticket, to numerous standing ovations.
The evening began with the Moscow Philharmonic, conducted by Vassily Sinaisky (assistant conductor at Cliburn's historic performance at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958), performing the Russian national anthem. Cliburn's solo rendition of ``The Star-Spangled Banner'' followed.
From there, curiously, the orchestra played Copland's ``Lincoln Portrait,'' with Cliburn serving as narrator, his rich, actorish voice proving surprisingly effective. The orchestra then played short pieces by Glinka and Tchaikovsky before Cliburn came back to perform a series of solo pieces: Szymanowski's Etude, Opus 4, No. 3; Debussy's ``Reflets dans l'eau''; and Chopin's Scherzo in C-sharp minor. Cliburn's technique was thoroughly intact as he lent the works his distinctive brand of emotional flourish without sacrificing technical precision.
After intermission came one of Cliburn's signature pieces, Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor (his recording of it was the first classical album to become a gold record, and has since gone triple platinum).
His performance of it is still powerful, his playing filled with an intensity in the fast passages and a lyrical beauty in the slower movements. If not technically flawless (at times he seemed to rush ahead of the orchestra, and he grew visibly tired towards the end), it was stirring and crowd-pleasing, bringing the audience to its feet even at the conclusion of the first movement.
Immediately after the concert, Cliburn flew home to Texas. The following morning, his mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, passed away with her son at her side.