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KEY NOTES <br> REPRISING MUSICAL MEMORIES AND MOMENTS FROM VAN CLIBURN'S CAREER

Van Cliburn.

The name still has a magnetic resonance, 43 years after the 23-year-old Texan had instant universal celebrity thrust upon him in Moscow when he won the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition.

He remains the only classical musician ever honored with one of New York City's gaudy ticker-tape parades.

Even though he retired from concert life in 1978, only to return on a limited basis in 1994, Cliburn's name on posters and theater marquees still guarantees a sold-out house.

And now he is returning to Kleinhans Music Hall, after a 25-year absence, to join JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky's flashing Piano Concerto No. 1, the same work which launched Cliburn's career in Moscow in 1958.

At press time, there were still a few tickets available for the 8 p.m. Saturday concert, but it's certain to be yet another sellout.

To complete the program for Saturday's concert, JoAnn Falletta will conduct the BPO in Debussy's "Petite Suite" and Richard Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration."

The presence on Saturday's program of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto is both emblematic of of everything glamorous and lordly about the Cliburn persona, and symptomatic of a major reason that Cliburn's career may have soared for a while, but never went into the orbit his adoring public eagerly anticipated.

It was the celebrity hounds, rather than serious music lovers, who tended to fill up the halls where Cliburn played.

And they desperately wanted to hear their "favorites." So when Cliburn performed with orchestras, it was usually the Tchaikovsky First or the Rachmaninoff Third concertos that were flung out. And in solo recitals, one could count on hearing the same core repertory of Chopin, Brahms and Beethoven.

An example: Cliburn appeared in solo recital at Chautauqua in 1970 and 1972, then returned to the area in 1976 as featured artist on the QRS Great Performers series. And on each of those three programs he offered listeners the same Beethoven Sonata in E Flat, Op. 31 No. 3, Brahms' Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 and the Chopin Nocturne in E Major, Op. 62 No. 2. This meant that only about half of the program was available for a little aural variety.

Part of this may be due to a naive honesty all too unfamiliar among top performing artists.

Many years ago in an interview with The Buffalo News (he was "not available" for a phone conversation this time around), Cliburn said, "I simply won't play in public any music with which I fail to find a deep emotional rapport."

This limitation of his repertoire may go back to some advice given by his mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, who was also his first teacher. "Choose carefully which works to learn," she reportedly told her son, "and never let them go. They will always be your friends."

Although his breadth of repertoire may have been questioned throughout his career, very few music aficionados ever said that Cliburn lacked an extraordinary technique and a sense of majesty about his playing.

After the first concert of his 1994 comeback tour in the Hollywood Bowl with the Moscow Philharmonic, critic Michael Walsh of Time magazine acknowledged that the conclusion of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto nearly disintegrated in a tug of war with conductor Vassily Sinaisky over whose tempo should be observed.

But, taking the larger view, Walsh also said, "The formidable technique was still there, and the distinctive ringing tone. Cliburn really is a throwback to the piano's Golden Age of blazing virtuosity and emotional extravagance. He remains one of the handful of players -- and just about the only American -- who can conjure up the world of Rachmaninoff and Horowitz."

Another side of Cliburn's character emerged just a couple of weeks into that particular tour. At age 97, his mother died. That might have been enough to make many artists cancel the whole tour, especially a sensitive man like Cliburn, who has admitted that he gets just as nervous before a concert today as he did walking out onto the Moscow stage in 1958.

He proved to be a real trouper, however, and after a few days off resumed the tour with a performance at Canandaigua's Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center. He dedicated that performance to the memory of his mother, whom he described from the stage as "a great pianist, an olympically great teacher, and my best friend."

Despite the personal loss, Cliburn's performance in Canandaigua demonstrated that he still had his "chops" and that he and conductor Sinaisky had reached an accord about the tempo of the Finale's conclusion. The Buffalo News' review said, "In the Finale, which rages like Cossack dancers, the pianist's articulation in dauntingly rapid and convoluted figurations was not only clean and accurate but also retained an unexpected soft-edged quality. The thundering piano passage near the end was brilliantly played."

So there's the enigmatic Cliburn -- a national artistic icon, a brilliant technician, a performer of charismatic presence, an erratic personality who can seem distant and has been known to show up late for concerts, and a shy artist who always gets butterflies in his stomach and has said he'd rather attend the opera than play the piano in public.

But there is yet another side to the private, offstage Cliburn which I had the opportunity to experience. It was three years before he had attained international fame and 12 years prior to my becoming a professional music critic.

The year was 1955, and Cliburn had just won the prestigious Leventritt Award. One of its perks was an appearance with the Buffalo Philharmonic and its then-music director Josef Krips.

After the March 14 concert I was backstage in Kleinhans Music Hall talking with BPO violist Aaron Juvelier when Cliburn, tall, wiry-haired and affable, wandered out of his dressing room looking lost and somewhat bewildered.

"Would you like to come over to my apartment and have a beer?" I asked.

Evidently he considered this prospect more appealing than going back to an empty hotel room, so he accepted.

Cliburn, Juvelier and I spent a couple of hours playing some rare recordings and talking about the world of music. Then I drove him back to his hotel, not expecting that we would ever cross paths again.

But 15 years later Cliburn gave a solo recital in the huge Chautauqua Amphitheater and I was in the audience. On a lark, I went backstage to see Cliburn and was absolutely amazed when he called to me by name, even before I could say hello. He also referred to Juvelier and rattled off more details of our earlier conversations than I could remember.

It's been said that Jim Farley, postmaster general during the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency, could recall the names of 25,000 people. I don't know if Cliburn can rival that, but this incident remains the most extraordinary memory feat in my experience.

Now 67, Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. remains one of America's cultural treasures, known by his more familiar name, Van, to millions who otherwise pay scant attention to the nation's classical music activities.

And wherever he goes, he is still news. Cliburn is one of five American artists who will receive honors from Washington, D.C's Kennedy Center this year during its 24th annual Honors Gala on Dec. 2. In a Kennedy Center citation he is described as ". . . a pianist whose stellar career bears witness to the life-affirming power of music."

But two months before that honor is bestowed, Cliburn will be among us, playing the concerto which in 1958 changed his life.

e-mail: htrotter@buffnews.com