Organizers didn’t know he’d be there until Thursday morning. The musicians didn’t know until he took the stage at Bass Hall, congratulating the venue and its patrons. But there was Van Cliburn, Thursday night.
“How grateful we all are to live in a great city like Fort Worth,” Van Cliburn said.
Audience members rose to their feet at the sight of the tall, white-haired pianist as he was escorted to the podium. His appearance at the 50th Anniversary Gold Medalists Concert was unexpected, to say the least. His publicist announced late last month that Cliburn was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer.
The 78-year old musician said he applauded “all the incredibly talented musicians” in the Fort Worth Symphony and the citizens who supported them. His words crescendoed into a shout:
“I personally want to thank you all for all of your faithful support. Remember, I will love you all from the bottom of my heart, forever!”
Cliburn waved heartily once more from the side of the stage, planting a foot to keep his escorts from leading him off just yet.
Cliburn became famous for winning the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 at the peak of the Cold War as a twenty-three year old. He returned to a hero’s welcome, a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Many in Fort Worth know him for bringing world-class talent to their city via the Cliburn concerts series and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which has happened every four years since 1962.
A long silence followed Cliburn’s blessing. But the evening’s concert was full of the spirit of work and a focus on the music. Bach’s Concerto for Four Pianos in A Minor, Poulenc’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra and Mendelssohn’s Concerto No. 2 for Two Pianos and Orchestra in A flat Major – all seemed infused by the musicians with a sense of the occasion.
Outside, after the performances, confetti rained on concertgoers as the four featured winners from previous competitions who performed Thursday night– Ralph Votapek, Andre-Michael Schub, Alexander Kobrin and Hoachen Zhang – stood in a spotlight on the balcony. Fans drank champagne and ate together.
Seeing Cliburn step out on stage “was a great surprise,” he said. “It’s always an honor to be around him and see him. … It’s an undescribable feeling of touching a legend, and touching something which is very true and dedicated.”
Kobrin remembered the six hours he spent with Cliburn at his Fort Worth home after he won the 2005 competition. He was twenty-five and eager for guidance in his career. Now, he says, the future of classical music rests on such inspired leadership.
“Since we are all teaching now,” Kobrin said, “we have to pass it to our students to let them know that careers could go either way. You may win competitions, you may not. But this is not the main thing why we’re doing this.”
“We’re doing this because we love it. And we don’t lie to ourselves or to anybody. Because through music, you can see the person, you can see who they are.”
At the piano during the concert, Kobrin looked like a playful scholar. He seemed propelled by a joyous curiosity at the close of the concert, when he rejoined the other medalists. They improvised to a Slavonic dance by Dvorak that they’d transcribed from four hands to eight and rehearsed once during an orchestra break Thursday morning. The finale proved a fitting beginning for the celebration that followed.
“I think this is our mission, to keep classical music alive, especially in these difficult times of financial crisis and so forth,” Kobrin said. “I think people should go back to classical art more and more, and go back to the halls and we’re very happy to see a full house tonight.”
Judy Shahan and Ruth Bennet of Fort Worth rode the parking garage elevator at 10:30 p.m., chatty and reeling from the night. They’ve been season ticket holders to the Cliburn Concerts series for more than ten years.
“Of course I knew [Cliburn] was ill, but I had no idea he would be here tonight,” Shahan said. “And it was so wonderful for him to speak and to encourage us and to encourage the pianists who were going to play – ”
“The best in the world, picked out of 600 people,” Bennet piped in, thrilled by the caliber of talent the competition brings to town. “By golly, they come to Fort Worth, and they’re ours. And they smile at us, and they share a drink with us.”