In 1965, when I was spending the summer with my grandmother in Orlando (along with a gaggle of younger sibs and cousins), the wild rumor got around that Disney—Walt Disney—was going to turn some orange groves and swamps outside that sleepy little city into a huge, wonderful theme park. Another Disneyland—right down the road from Gram’s house? We couldn’t believe our good luck.
But what I thought was: this is like lightning striking twice—the second time a good fairy had sprinkled magic dust all over my life. She must, I thought, be following me around. Because when we weren’t in Orlando, future home of Mickey and friends, we lived in Fort Worth, Texas, another sleepy city with a couple of small museums, a modest little orchestra, and a thing called “Casa Mañana” that showed musicals I liked. In other words, enough of “the arts” to keep a kid from starving to death—but not much more.
That started to change for me one day in the early 1960s, when I read a story in the newspaper about a brand-new international piano competition—and it was going to happen right here in Fort Worth.
And yes, it would be like the one in Moscow where our hero Van (Cliburn) won the prize. And yes, yes, yes, it would be wonderful, and make us famous, and be a Disneyland’s-worth of fun for the fans of classical music. And it will tell you just exactly what kind of kid I was—that I definitely was more jazzed about the Cliburn than about the “Disney World” news flash a few years later. I was never a piano player (though my mom paid a teenage neighbor 50 cents a pop to give me piano lessons for a while), but I was a very enthusiastic listener.
In the beginning, I suspect, the Fort Worth planning team was flying by the seat of their pants. TCU’s Ed Landreth Auditorium (a plain Jane, but acoustically solid) was a natural fit for the competition—and back then, there weren’t a lot of just-right-size venues in the city. Host families had to be found—and my recollection is that having a grand piano in your home gave you a definite edge in being selected. (Now Steinway delivers a piano to the home of each host family—if they don’t already own one!)
I don’t remember many details about the first competition, only that my mother let me skip school a few days to attend sessions. (She had three little kids in tow—if I wanted to obsess about classical music, it was fine by her. Besides, she was the one who’d bought those LPs of Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Rimsky-Korsakov—what did she think would happen?) I skipped classes again in 1966, this time with a (somewhat) deeper awareness of what was happening. I liked the sounds of all the foreign languages in Ed Landreth, the buzz of discussion that followed each performance in the “prelims”—and smug little thing that I was, I liked being one of the youngest audience members. And nobody said, “Little girl, shouldn’t you be in school?” We were in solidarity, music lovers feasting on the sounds of a solo piano played well.
In 1966, my family had a horse in the race—and that made things extra exciting. Our neighbors down the street, Hugh Watson and family, were hosting a young French pianist named Catherine Silie, and they asked us if we’d take her to Mass on Sunday. I never thought to wonder if she was a church-goer back in France, but shy, pretty Mlle. Silie trotted off to St. Andrew’s with us. She made it through the preliminaries, and did well (we thought) in the semifinals, but didn’t go on to the final round. I looked her up recently: she won some awards in Europe, notably First Prize at the Marie Canals International Music Competition in Barcelona, and had a long career as a “professeur” at the Conservatoire de Nimes; her own students are mentioned in piano competitions around the globe. She founded a summer music festival (“Musique sur la colline”) in the Rhone Alps south of Grenoble, and is still performing. I hope her Texas experience, though disappointing in the end, left her with some happy memories.
It seemed to me then that Fort Worth took more pride and pleasure in the Cliburn than any city could: there were parties, field trips around town (to show off our cowboys, cattle, ranches and BBQ to wide-eyed competitors half a world from home), and endless speculation about who was doing well, and who might win. It was a kind of “March Madness” process for classical music nerds—and it was tons of fun.
And let’s face it: I don’t think I’m the only one who believes the addition of the Cliburn was a kind of “yeast” that set the arts world to bubbling in Fort Worth and Dallas in the 1960s and ‘70s: art museums expanded, symphonic and opera organizations raised their expectations, theater companies grew. It was, in part, because of the Cliburn; we’d had a closer look at the wider world, and they’d had a look at us.
I went to college, married, moved to Chicago and heard second-hand about the competitions of the 1970s. But in the early ‘80s we were back in Fort Worth again. I was a young mother, and may I say, distressed to find that the competition wasn’t held in the autumn any more, but at the end of May—right when my children got out of school for the summer. Perfect timing, Van Cliburn Competition—thanks! But when I could afford it, I’d evade my freelance deadlines, spring for a babysitter, and settle myself into Ed Landreth again.
And that’s when I had my Almost Greatest Moment—a moment that I blew completely. Heading one afternoon for a drink at a water fountain off the lobby, I waited for the guy ahead of me to finish drinking and move away. He stood up and turned around. All six-foot-plus of him, in a dark suit, with curly hair and well-manicured hands that seemed the size of baseball mitts. It was Van, of course, smiling down at me, obviously waiting politely for me to say the words I’d been wanting since childhood to say: “Mr. Cliburn, I’ve never heard anyone play the way you do—that lovely singing sound you give to the melodies, emotional without being sappy. I was so proud of you in Moscow, so proud you were a Texas boy. I keep the programs I have from your concerts in a special box. I invented fan fic for you—I wrote stories about being in Moscow and hearing you play. My friend Maryanna says she invented fan fic with her stories about the Beatles, but she’s wrong. I got there first. I’m so glad to meet you.”
Did I say any of that? I did not. Utterly gobsmacked by the unexpected encounter, I simply stared, clutched my Mom purse a little tighter, and said, “Hello, there.” And he smiled, and said, “Yes, hello.”
Not that he hadn’t heard it before a thousand times, from a thousand people and more. But I still wish those words had been said—now more than ever, when we are mourning his loss, and looking forward to the 14th competition in just over a week. Thirty young competitors are coming this time—and by the end they (and we) will have stored up enough stories to tell for a lifetime.
So now that I’ve told everything—do any of you have Cliburn stories you’d like to share? Send them below as comments, and we’ll print as many as we can.