Van Cliburn – A Personal Recollection

Based on personal experiences during my many years of working in arts administration, I’ve learned that one should be cautious before attempting to meet an idol. If an artist has had a bad day, or is in a bad mood, what to them is merely a quick and casual encounter can be, for the fan, an unpleasant memory that will last a lifetime. On the other hand, sometimes the encounter is a wonderful moment to cherish forever.

Such was my one encounter with Van Cliburn, an artist I have long admired—here was a musician who not only had unsurpassed technique capable of anything any composer ever required, it was also coupled with a rare musical taste and intelligence. So when he was at Ravinia for the 2005 Gala, I was determined to meet him and accordingly waited backstage to speak to him after the afternoon rehearsal. As he left the stage, I approached him and said, “Mr. Cliburn, I’ve never done this before in the 12 years I’ve worked here, but I just had to take the opportunity to tell you how in awe I am of your musicianship.” He immediately exclaimed, “How sweet!” and gave me a big hug, after which he invited me back to his dressing room, where he autographed some CDs for me and my high school piano teacher, who also idolized him.

It was a heady moment for me; as a Baby Boomer, I was well aware of his landmark triumph at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, which occurred significantly at the height of the Cold War, and over the years I had acquired most of his recordings. I spent the next 20 minutes telling him how flawless I felt his interpretations were, even though I was aware of how presumptuous I must have sounded—after all, who was I to tell the most famous pianist on the planet how wonderful he was? I apologized, saying that he must get tired of having fans gush to him, at which point he put his hand on my arm and said with total sincerity, “You know, each of us is in his own little room, and if people don’t tell us, we don’t know.”

I was deeply moved, and I will always treasure the opportunity I had to communicate with a legendary artist.

John Schauer
Associate Director of Communications, Publications