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A Musician’s Legacy


Van Cliburn performs with the World Youth Symphony in Interlochen, MI, on July 22, 2019 (courtesy of Interlochen.org).

Last week, the classical music world lost a truly great musician. Van Cliburn, best known for his unprecedented victory at the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, passed away on February 27th at the age of 78. For me, Mr. Cliburn’s passing struck a personal note, because I had the privilege of sharing a stage with him when I was but a naive fifteen-year-old only beginning to understand the meaning and purpose of being a musician. That concert was a defining moment in my musical development, and so in honor of Mr. Cliburn’s extraordinary life, I wish to share my treasured memories of that experience and the invaluable lessons I learned from it.


The concert took place in the famed Kresge Auditorium at the Interlochen Arts Academy, an enormous covered pavilion that sits on the shores of the campus’s tranquil Green Lake. It was the fourth week of the senior high summer session, but the first week I was in residence; my parents were serving on the faculty at Interlochen for the second part of the summer, so to save money (and avoid living in a cabin), I obtained special permission to enroll as a day camper for the final three weeks only. After taking an impromptu audition at 7:45 A.M. my first morning there (which I somehow managed to play decently in), I was placed in the World Youth Symphony, and headed over to the 8 A.M. rehearsal to discover that our first concert would be an all-Tchaikovsky program, consisting of the Romeo and Juliet overture and the piano concerto. If Mr. Cliburn’s name was mentioned at that first rehearsal, I definitely didn’t think much of it, as my attention was primarily focused on the task of figuring out fingerings for the many difficult passages before me; however, I began to realize just how legendary he was as the week went on and the day of the concert drew nearer. He didn’t actually show up until two days beforehand, and getting into the first rehearsal was like gaining admission to a some sort of military base-non-orchestra members were prohibited from coming within several yards of the outdoor auditorium, and screens were placed all along its open sides, preventing even the stealthiest camper with binoculars from catching a glimpse of the formidable pianist. On stage, the conductor was the only person allowed to converse with Mr. Cliburn, and we had to arrive before him and leave after him.

In spite of the rigid protocols, however, the music-making that occurred within those few rehearsals was of a kind I had never experienced before. The notes that emanated from Mr. Cliburn’s instrument seemed to glimmer like sonorous jewels in the humid Michigan air, soaring through the drafty roof and into the depths of the salmon evening sky. He made delicate melodies sing with astonishing ease, dramatic moments explode with fervor and excitement, and virtuosic passages come alive with impeccable accuracy, all while exhibiting a truly profound sense of musicianship. Sitting in the back of the cello section, I quickly realized how privileged I was to be taking part in this experience-here I was, fresh out of my sophomore year in high school, and I had the opportunity to perform with such a masterful artist. Naturally, it was with excited anticipation that I came to the concert, and Mr. Cliburn did not disappoint. Before a crowd of nearly four thousand people, he played his heart out, and the applause was so thunderous and unrelenting upon the conclusion of his performance that we did the third movement again. After that, the audience was still on its feet and cheering, so he sat down and played another encore-I think it was Chopin-before standing up, accepting the second onslaught of applause, and then waving his hand at the piano as if saying, “Nah, I think I’m done for now.” When he disappeared into the darkness of the backstage, I thought it would be the last I’d see of him, but I was wrong: we soon received word from the orchestra manager that it was Mr. Cliburn’s desire to meet everyone in the orchestra and give out autographs. I excitedly grabbed a program book, and spent the next twenty minutes or so swatting mosquitoes as I stood in a slow-moving line leading up to where Mr. Cliburn was standing at a picnic table near the beach. It’s been five and a half years since that night, but I still remember my meeting with him in vivid detail. I gave him my name so he could address me personally in his autograph, and as he scribbled with a sharpie in the darkness, I told him what an honor it was to have played with him.


“What do you play?” he asked me.

“Cello,” I responded, willing my voice not to squeak out of nerves and excitement.

“Oh, you guys sounded great,” he told me. “Really solid.”


A mosquito was whining somewhere close by, and the violist in back of me was already taking out her own program book, so our conversation pretty much stopped after that. He presented me with the autograph, shook my hand, and then, just like that, my meeting with one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century was over. Later, in the dim light of the street lamps that shone  over the twilit campus, I opened the program book to see the following message written in jagged but decipherable cursive:


To Zach

with best wishes

Van Cliburn


My mind drifted back to that night last week when I logged onto Facebook on Wednesday afternoon and learned that Mr. Cliburn had passed away. I had only spent a few days in his company, and had barely exchanged more than ten words with him; yet, the performance he gave and the depth of musicality he exhibited left such an indelible impression upon me that I will never forget it. It was then, sitting in front of my computer screen with the New York Times obituary open in the internet window, that I realized it does not matter what we achieve in our careers as much as who we inspire with our performances. Our legacies are not defined by our accolades, but by our artistry. How ironic is it that we spend so much of our time dreaming of success, but fail to open our eyes to the success we’ve already had? For when it comes down to it, to be successful as a musician requires no more than effectively conveying the meaning of the music we perform. Mr. Cliburn did that in Moscow in 1958, but he also did it on a warm Michigan night in 2006, and gave all of us in attendance an everlasting memory. His death leaves an unfillable void in our world, but if those of us whom he inspired continue to embody the qualities he so ardently expressed-of deep musicianship, genuine kindness, and a desire for peace-then his legacy will truly live forever, gleaming like the sunset in a late summer sky.

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