There's no comeback in Van Cliburn's tour


August 21, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

" There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. That maxim was put to the test earlier this year when pianist Van Cliburn announced, amid much fanfare, that he would make a comeback tour with the Moscow Philharmonic this summer.

That tour -- the pianist's first after more than 16 years of a scarcely interrupted retirement -- ends today at Wolf Trap when Cliburn performs Tchaikovsky's First Concerto. From the beginning of his comeback attempt, however, it was clear that the wisdom of Fitzgerald's remark had been sadly, even pathetically, confirmed.

The tour became a fiasco the night it opened at the Hollywood Bowl. The Texas-born pianist -- who became a national hero in 1958 when he won the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War -- had been slated to narrate Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" and then to perform his two signature pieces, Tchaikovsky's First and Rachmaninoff's Third concertos. But after an error-ridden performance of the Tchaikovsky, the pianist was not able to summon the courage to perform the much more difficult Rachmaninoff.

After more than 20 minutes in which a confused audience sat in their seats and an even more rattled orchestra waited on stage for him, Cliburn walked out, told the audience that he felt too faint to perform, proceeded to tell them about his medical history and then informed them that it was his 60th birthday. He played a few minutes of encore pieces and an already strange evening ended in even more bizarrerie: The crooner Johnny Mathis appeared, along with several stagehands carrying a huge piano-shaped birthday cake, and invited the audience to join him in singing "Happy Birthday" to the pianist.

While the pianist dropped the Rachmaninoff concerto from his ++ programs, his performances of the Tchaikovsky grew steadily worse. He began to suggest not the Cliburn of old but, rather, a poor man's Liberace. Finally, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York earlier this month, he sounded new depths. The pianist had recently learned that his 97-year-old mother, first teacher and lifelong companion, Rildia Bee, had suffered a stroke. From the stage of the Met, her 60-year-old son recited a poem he had written in her honor. A few days later at her wake in Dallas, the pianist claimed to have had "a mystical experience" as Rildia Bee had died. People started to call Cliburn's comeback tour "Psycho," and refer to the perpetually smiling, 6-foot-4 pianist as Norman Bates.

Cliburn burst into celebrity as one of the biggest news stories of 1958. In October 1957, the former Soviet Union had shot Sputnik into orbit, and the United States reeled in disbelief; we sent a satellite of our own up in January 1958. Then, in April, we put another kind of star into another sort of orbit. And the Soviet Union was the testing ground from which he blasted off. When Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr., a relatively unknown 23-year-old Texan, won the first Tchaikovsky Competition for pianists, he beat the Russians at their own game -- music -- and on their own turf.

Cliburn came home to a hero's welcome unlike any the country had given in peacetime since Charles Lindbergh's in 1927. He got a ticker-tape parade down New York's Fifth Avenue; he was received at the White House by President Dwight D. Eisenhower; and bobby-soxers reacted to him with an ardor usually reserved for pop-music idols.

"I'm not sure I'm a success, but I guess I'm a sensation," Cliburn said at the time. "If this is a dream, I hope I never wake up."

A little more than a decade later, the dream had ended. By the early 1970s, Cliburn was having memory slips, playing inaccurately, even playing as if he were bored. He avoided major music centers, and important orchestras were no longer

interested in engaging him. His last recordings -- made in the mid-'70s -- were embarrassments. In 1978, without any fanfare, Cliburn called it quits.

While Cliburn's decline has sparked much speculation, his is not really a special case. In fact, Cliburn's case is the unfortunate prototype of a modern pianistic career. For the last 40 years, the American music scene has been littered with the graves of once promising keyboard careers. Not a single pianist in Cliburn's generation has fulfilled his promise -- at least not in any way that can be called sustained. William Kapell and Julius Katchen died young; Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman and Byron Janis have sufferedcrippling disabilities; and Eugene Istomin, Ivan Davis 11 and John Browning, while continuing to concertize, do not enjoy the success once predicted for them. No American pianist in his middle 50s or older has the stature of such Europeans as Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich or Alicia de Larrocha.

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