Van Cliburn.

My friend Van Cliburn died today.   Well, OK, it’s not like we were great pals or anything… we met only one time, but still…  You know how it is when you chat with a celebrity–  you start saying that he is your friend, and you conveniently leave out the part about how you and he spoke for only five minutes, years ago, and if you ran into him again he wouldn’t know you from Adam…  you leave that part out and you say, “My friend Van Cliburn”.

So I have a story about my friend Van Cliburn.  He told the story himself as we stood chatting at a reception.  For five minutes.   Four years ago.

It was January 15, 2009 (Thursday, if you want to fact-check me).  I was at the Meyerson Concert Hall in Dallas to hear the Dallas Symphony perform Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.  This was my first time to see the new concertmaster Jaap van Zweden.   I was lukewarm about the Shostakovich piece, except its third movement, the passacaglia, which was beautiful.   Violinist Cho-Liang Lin had a long solo which was astonishing.  I am awed by violinists.

After the concert, I went to a public reception for van Zweden in the green room.  Mr. van Zweden worked the room, shaking everyone’s hand.  When he got around to me, in my eagerness to impress him I’m afraid I made a couple of well-intentionted but ill-informed comments about the Shostakovich piece, causing the distinguished concertmaster to look at me in amazement, as though I had just compared Shostakovich to Cher– and then he quickly moved on.

Then a tall, trim, tan fellow moved through the room.  He was at least 6 feet 2, with thick curly gray hair.  Very distinguished looking.  Someone pointed him out to me and I waited for a break in the conversation and introduced myself.  I said, “Mr. Cliburn, seems like I heard you are from Shreveport.”  I was going to clarify my opening line by explaining that I once lived there too.  But Cliburn, evidently a raconteur, took over in a genial, talkative way.  He had a soft baritone voice.  He spoke so quietly that I had to lean in a bit to hear him and each time I did so he took hold of my arm in a neighborly way, the way folks often do in Texas.   I didn’t catch all of what he said, but this much I did get, he said, “I was born there.  I lived on Highway 80.  Later we moved to Texas.  My mother took me to concerts.  When I was 8 years old, I got to hear Fritz Kreisler play.  Imagine that!  I got to hear Fritz Kreisler!”  All these years later, after all his own celebrity, here was Van Cliburn telling about hearing Fritz Kreisler with the same amazement that I would have when telling someone Imagine that, I got to talk to Van Cliburn.   He went on, “I always wanted to sing.  I enjoy singing even more than playing piano because when you sing you get to look at the audience.  I wanted to sing opera and of course I got to sing with the Houston opera.  When I was a boy I told daddy that I wanted to have a baritone bass voice so I can sing opera and daddy said, son you can’t always tell what kind of voice a man is going to have.”  And then he moved on to meet other folks

That’s it, my Van Cliburn story.  My friend Van Cliburn.  He made music.  He made history.

A spell of rest, and quiet breath…

A couple of years ago, I was a frequent customer of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.  In my work-life, I deal directly and not always pleasantly with the public.  After a forty-hour work week, my mind sometimes feels coated with mental sludge, and a weekly DSO concert was like a cleansing wash, refreshing my brain.

I always chose one of the cheap seats in the Meyerson Center– up on the stage, behind the orchestra.  From that vantage point, I had a splendid view of the audience, and I could see behind the scenes:  musicians and their music.  I could not read the sheet music, but I could see the oboist making notes on the pages or the cellist making adjustments, and I could watch the percussionists tuning their drums or whatever it was that they were thumping– before then, I did not know that drums need tuning.  Mr. Cherry, now retired, would bend so close to his kettle drum to get it tuned right that he seemed to be kissing it.  Also from my cheap seat, I watched the maestro up close.  While the rest of the house stared at his back, I saw his face in all its various expressions.  For my money, the cheap seats were the best seats in the house.

From my onstage perch, I also noticed the professionalism of the musicians.  I saw their courtesies:  performers taking bows, moving with grace, making way for each other and acknowledging other musicians.  Watching this I realized that the root of “courtesy” is “court” and the animating idea is that of behaving with the well-bred manners of a royal court.  One might object and say that this is just play-acting, just for show.   I would reply yes, you are right and… so what?   Social graces are the lubricant of a smooth-functioning society.  I am not sure that “keeping it real” has done much to advance civilization.

Speaking of music, in 1928 Elizabeth Bishop wrote a few lines that appeal to me:

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow…


There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath…