Van Cliburn

Pages from the Arts: April 2017

In this month's review of books about performing arts and artists, we look at two biographies of Van Cliburn, a book about opera singer Ryan Speedo Green, another chronicling a summer repertory Much Ado, and The Great Comet tome.

published Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Editor's note: In Pages from the Arts, we'll review books that relate to what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, Acquisitions Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. Ritchie also reviews books for the websites of the Dallas Public Library, Theatre Library Association, and the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, plus other publications.

Pages from the Arts will also include reviews from other TheaterJones contributors, and we encourage our readers to suggest and submit reviews, too. If you're reading a newish (let's say less than a year old) book that falls into a performing arts category, email editor Mark Lowry at and let him know you'd be interested in reviewing it. If you have written or contributed to a book that fits the mission, let him know that too, especially if there is a North Texas connection.

If the book is currently available at the Dallas Public Library, we'll offer that information.

In this edition of Pages from the Arts, Ritchie reviews two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; an inspiring story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and Mark Lowry looks at the gorgeous book (and CD) for the off-Broadway to Broadway immersive musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.



Photo: Cliburn Foundation
Van Cliburn performing at the Tchaikovsky competition



Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War

Nigel Cliff

Harper Collins Publishers, 2016

ISBN 978-0062333162

464 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE


When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph, and Its Aftermath

Stuart Isacoff

Knopf Publishers, 2017

ISBN 978-0385352185

304 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE


“What’s goin’ on here?” a stalled taxi driver yelled to a cop. “A parade? Fer the piano player?

                                                               — from Moscow Nights

You must think you’re a big success,” came one accusatory lob. “Oh no, I’m not a success. I’m just a sensation,” [Cliburn] replied.

                                                              — from When the World Stopped to Listen



It is astonishing to contemplate that one of the world’s major cities was brought to a literal standstill on a May day in 1958 thanks to a classical musician. But when Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr. (aka, “Van”) won Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, leaving some of the best Soviet musicians in his wake, it changed both the musical and geopolitical worlds in untold ways. Van Cliburn died in 2013, but the piano competition founded in his name in 1962 lives on, and its 15th edition takes place in Fort Worth May 25-June 10.

Cliburn’s legacy continues to intrigue and resonate, as evidenced by two new biographies published months apart. Each title recounts the basic facts of the pianist’s life and accomplishments but differs in emphasis to an extent. Either one will gratify interested readers, but together, they offer a multi-faceted view of a tumultuous time in both American and Russian cultural history.         

Van Cliburn proudly proclaimed himself a Texan, but he actually hailed from Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was born in July 1934 to Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Sr. and Rildia Bee Cliburn. The family relocated to Kilgore, Texas when Van was six. Rildia Bee was a well-regarded piano accompanist and instructor and became her only child’s music teacher as well, once she discovered him at age three accurately mimicking, from memory, a piece he had just overheard from one of her students.

Young Van’s piano progress was swift and at age 17, he entered the Julliard School, becoming a pupil of the famed Rosina Lhevinne. At 20, Cliburn won the prestigious Leventritt Award, and subsequently made his Carnegie Hall debut. Early in his training, he showed special affinity and passion for the works of the Russian “romantic” composers.

In 1958, on the heels of the Soviet Union’s recent successful launch of the Sputnik satellite, the International Tchaikovsky Competition was created, ostensibly to confirm Russia’s scientific and cultural superiority to the world during the so-called Cold War. Accordingly, it was fully expected that a Soviet pianist should and would win the top prize.

Therefore, when 24-year-old Van Cliburn inspired multiple standing ovations and swooning audience acclaim with his renditions of signature works by Tchaikovsky himself, among others, the equally impressed judges felt obligated to ask Premier Nikita Krushchev’s permission to award the American first-place honors. As authors Cliff and Isacoff both describe, the Premier famously replied: “Is he the best? Then give him the prize.”

The world, and Van Cliburn’s life, would never be the same.

To say Cliburn’s surprise victory made headlines wins its own award for understatement. The news stunned the world, and the near-maniacal adoration shown by the Russian populace for the tall, polite young man from Texas was genuine and overwhelming—devotion he would reciprocate towards the Soviet people for the rest of his life.

Photo: Cliburn Foundation
Van Cliburn

Back in America, Time Magazine’s cover awaited him, along with the now-legendary New York City ticker-tape parade, the first and only such event honoring a musical artist. After the tumult (somewhat) dissipated, Cliburn moved on to a career of recitals and best-selling recordings, though, in later years, critics would question his seeming reluctance to expand his repertoire beyond the Russian composers who were his musical mainstays.

Cliburn returned to his beloved Russia several times in the 1960s and 1970s to perform for government officials. In the United States, he also toured and plied his trade on special national occasions. But after Cliburn began a hiatus from public life in 1979 following the deaths of his father and his manager, he notably re-emerged in 1987 to perform at the Reagan White House in honor of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. On that enchanted evening, the pianist’s impromptu rendition of “Moscow Nights” brought tears to eyes and a sense of global brotherhood to all assembled.

In 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was established, to be held every four years in Fort Worth, Cliburn’s new home city, with American Ralph Votapek as its inaugural winner.

After years of additional honors, occasional performances, and a long-term partnership in his personal life, Van Cliburn died of bone cancer in February 2013, inspiring still more tributes from young and old, near and far.

Authors Cliff and Isacoff both share Cliburn’s life story with the Tchaikovsky Competition as their centerpiece, though Cliff devotes more print to the contest’s  political underpinnings, both before the contest commenced and after Cliburn’s name was announced. As Cliff summarizes: “The fascination with Van’s victory went far beyond music. After the shock of Sputnik, it was the first sign that America could rise to the Soviet challenge and win—win, moreover, on the Reds’ home ground, in a contest of their choosing… At this point in U.S. history, Americans were desperately in need of reassurance.”

By some contrast, Isacoff’s stronger focus is on the details of the 1958 competition itself, including the individual pianists’ backgrounds and motivations, and the high personal stakes several of them faced as they crossed artistic paths with Cliburn. (However, while Cliff briefly discusses a romantic relationship that may have developed at the time between Cliburn and one of his competitors, Isacoff does not.)

Both authors offer keen portraits of Cliburn in his post-victory years, revealing that the all-American heartthrob Texan bachelor was not always a poster child for ideal off-stage behavior. Cliburn was chronically late to his own concerts (sometimes an hour or more), and could be thoughtless-verging-on-cruel to his closest supporters, as illustrated by his failure to extend any public recognition or credit to teacher Rosina Lhevinne after his victory. He also smoked constantly, relied on astrologers and various psychic advisors in his daily life, and, perhaps most notoriously, was at one time a patient of the legendary Max Jacobson, known as “Dr. Feelgood,” amphetamine supplier to the stars.

Cliburn also faced challenges in his romantic life, though his homosexuality was largely covert. He was sued for palimony in 1998, but would eventually partner with Thomas Smith in his final years. Throughout it all, however, Cliburn’s devotion to his parents, his Texas roots, the younger-generation pianists he mentored, his faithful followers both in America and abroad, and above all, to the glories of classical music, never faded.

Both Cliff and Isacoff deliver well-written, engrossing accounts of remarkable eras in American and Russian cultural life, with a most unlikely hero at their epicenters. While each title will be appreciated individually, together, they represent a fine tandem reading experience.


Sing For Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family

Daniel Bergner

Lee Boudreaux Books, 2016

ISBN 978-0316300674

320 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE


Photo: Metropolitan Opera
Ryan Speedo Green

In case we need to be reminded: Art matters. Great teachers matter. Ryan Speedo Green is living and singing proof of this.

Thanks in part to exceptional educators who saw potential in what appeared to be yet another troubled and directionless African-American male likely headed for an uncertain future, bass-baritone Green now performs at the Metropolitan Opera, where he sang the role of Colline in La Boheme last fall. But the title of Daniel Bergner’s book chronicling the singer’s rise from poverty and family strife is no melodramatic flourish—Ryan Speedo Green did indeed find himself “singing for his life,” and now, at age 31, he is not looking back.

Green was born in Virginia where he and his older brother were raised by a single mother, and their father largely absent. Their young lives consisted of low-income housing, with violence all around them. Green himself was subject to fits of temper and rage as a boy and at age 12, after threatening to kill his family members, he spent a brief time in a juvenile detention center, a life-shaping experience.

But when he was nine years old, Green had been placed in a class for “special” children taught by one Elizabeth Hughes, who refused to assume Ryan was beyond hope. She was the first of the gifted teachers who directed him towards better things, while, for example, introducing him to inspiring words from Martin Luther King, Jr. which stayed with the boy forever. Mrs. Hughes remained a force in his life, even during his time in juvie and beyond.

After discovering his singing voice, and eventually becoming a student at Roanoke, Virginia’s Governor’s School for the Arts, Green—whose educational background betrayed serious gaps, as did his vocal technique—came under the intense tutelage of the late Robert Brown, a dynamic, demanding voice teacher “who became a father figure to me,” says Green. On his way to winning national voice competitions and achieving his place on the Met roster, Green faced obstacles both intellectual and personal, but his story is testament to his own determination to enrich his life through art, and to some outstanding people who helped him achieve that dream.

Author Bergner’s chapters alternate between descriptions of Green’s troubled early years and his adult development as a prize-winning, yet still somewhat struggling, opera performer. Since Green’s unlikely background necessitated much supplementary study and effort on his part, his ultimate success was all the more notable. The story Bergner tells is worth experiencing. Once again, we are all reminded that great art, personal determination, and dedicated mentoring know no limits or color lines.


Much Ado: A Summer with a Repertory Theater Company

Michael Lenehan

Agate Midway Publishing, 2016

ISBN 978-1572842052

212 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE



One of my all-time favorite performing arts books is The Stuff of Dreams, Leah Hager Cohen’s 2001 behind-the-scenes profile of a Massachusetts community theater, as its dedicated “amateur” members mount a production of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.

Michael Lenehan’s book echoes Cohen’s earlier work, as we watch the American Players Theatre (APT) of Spring Green, Wisconsin—population 1,623—produce Much Ado About Nothing from soup to nuts in 2014. As the author embeds himself into the company, the troupe’s “putting on a show” becomes a wonderful journey for both readers and the creative people we get to know along the way.

APT was founded in 1979 by actor Randall Duk Kim, and others. Recent years have witnessed the company’s growth in popularity and national recognition, as it currently lays claim to attracting the second largest audience in the U.S. for “outdoor classical theatre,” with ticket sales averaging 100,000 during its June-to- October repertory seasons. Works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Moliére, and Chekhov are staples of APT’s offerings.

For the 2014 season that is this book’s setting, the well-known Shakespearean comedy is Lenehan’s focus, and he takes readers into nearly every aspect of its mounting—script preparation, auditions, rehearsals, set design and construction, costuming, sound, music scoring, sword-fighting, and more. Along the way, he offers personal profiles of the show’s director David Frank, Much Ado’s lead actors, and behind-the-scenes technical stalwarts like the indispensable stage manager. This theater company’s home base may be a tiny Midwestern city, but thanks to the motivation of its various movers and shakers, APT’s accomplishments render it a very large theatrical presence for Wisconsin and the rest of America.

Despite its brevity, this is a wonderfully inspiring book for performing arts lovers in general and theatre people in particular. It’s good for us all to be reminded that joyously creative greatness is not the sole property of two coasts and a few mega-cities somewhere in between. Long may APT, and all its fellow “small town” theatres, survive and flourish, no matter what budgetary challenges may await them.


Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway

Edited and compiled by Steven Suskin; script and annotations by Dave Malloy

Sterling Publishing, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4549-2328-2

211 pp.





Collectors of official tomes about Broadway musicals are used to beautifully produced coffee table books with striking photographs, production secrets, lively interviews and sometimes, the script.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway, has all that and more in one gorgeous package with some truly interesting reads about the show, Tolsoy’s War and Peace (the musical is adapted from 70 pages of that novel), and the craziness of a hit, immersive off-Broadway show that transferred to Broadway with superstar vocalist Josh Groban playing Pierre. That role was originated by Dave Malloy, who wrote the book, lyrics and music for the musical, originally produced by Ars Nova.

The script in the back half of the book is annotated by Malloy, and some of the engrossing essays are written by scenic designer Mimi Lien, Jason Eagan of Ars Nova, music supervisor Sonny Paladino (“Seats with Subwoofers”), Phillipa Soo, Josh Groban (he named is accordion “Olga”), and a foreword by the Public Theater’s Oskar Eustis.

There’s also a five-track CD, with three songs from the original production, and two sung by Groban in the Broadway staging.

Most of all, it’s a chronicle of an acclaimed, innovative work that many thought doubted survive a transfer to a Broadway theater. Most credit its success there to the starpower of Groban, but it’s nice to think that occasionally Broadway ticket buyers like to take a chance on something that doesn’t fit the mold of a typical, glossy fare on the Great White Way.

— Mark Lowry



» Pages from the Arts will appear on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.



  • February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
  • March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
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Pages from the Arts: April 2017
In this month's review of books about performing arts and artists, we look at two biographies of Van Cliburn, a book about opera singer Ryan Speedo Green, another chronicling a summer repertory Much Ado, and The Great Comet tome.
by Cathy Ritchie

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