Legendary Van Cliburn Returns to Concert Life

The pianist emerges after a long `sabbatical' to promote his tour

VAN CLIBURN at Tower Records? Really?

Last week, the revered pianist and cultural hero met 200 fans at the Boston music store as part of a national tour to introduce his return to the concert stage after a long hiatus.

On the third floor of the Tower Records building, the tall slim pianist with thick blonde hair - barely graying at the temples - greeted fans with a gracious ``Hello.'' He also shook hands and signed autographs, putting either a black Sharpie or a gold-ink pen to book pages, photos, and record sleeves.

The line of admirers wound around to the back of the store near the Mozart section; estimated time of arrival to Cliburn: two hours.

(The pianist reportedly greeted every last fan - something he was not able to do in Minneapolis, where 2,000 people showed up.)

As the cameras and smiles flashed, one couldn't help but notice his large nimble hands with fingers that seemed as long as an octave is wide. His blue suit and white shirt were as crisp as any beginning notes of a concerto.

``We were very excited about Van Cliburn coming here,'' says Brendan O'Neil, a regional-promotions assistant for Tower Records.

``He's here to meet his fans, meet the people who care most about his music, and reintroduce himself to the public. `Cordial' doesn't even begin to describe him,'' he says.

David Richardson arrived almost two hours before Mr. Cliburn to assure a first spot in line.

``I was a bit nervous,'' Richardson said after meeting the pianist. ``He's, like, my hero.'' Richardson, 18, a serious student of piano, added, ``I didn't think we'd be able to shake his hand.''

Richardson and thousands of other fans who have met with Cliburn in seven cities during the past few weeks stand as proof that after more than a decade ``on sabbatical'' Cliburn has maintained his celebrity appeal.

Van Cliburn won the gold medal at the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of the cold war. He immediately became America's best-known concert pianist, not to mention a cultural sensation. Upon his return to the United States, he was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York. He has performed for every President since Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as numerous heads of state and royalty.

Since 1962, he has lent his name to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; he continues to aid young artists through scholarships.

``I've been an enormous fan of Mr. Cliburn's ever since I was probably 3 years old,'' says Bertram Christmas, clutching a freshly autographed record and remembering how Cliburn's music wafted into his crib.

``It's always flowing, the beat is always perfect,'' says Mr. Christmas of Cliburn's piano-playing genius.

``When I've had a bad day at work, he is the pianist I would play most often.'' Christmas says his favorite Van Cliburn recordings would have to be Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1 and ``Rocky two and three'' (Rachmaninoff's Piano Concertos No. 2 and No. 3).

``No one did Rachmaninoff 2 and 3 like Van Cliburn. Nobody,'' he says.

In conjunction with Cliburn's resumption of concert life, RCA Victor has released digitally remastered editions of Van Cliburn's recordings of Rachmaninoff's ``Piano Concerto No. 2'' and Beethoven's ``Emperor'' Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Both are on the Living Stereo label.)

Although Van Cliburn has performed ``here and there'' in recent years, he hasn't done a full-fledged tour in about 16 years.

The two performances Van Cliburn has announced so far will be outdoor concerts: with the Houston Symphony at the Woodlands on May 28 and Chicago's Grant Park Symphony on June 18, with Leonard Slatkin conducting.

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