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ONE ENCHANTED EVENING WITH CLIBURN

I met Van Cliburn during one of the strangest weeks of my life. I was in Fort Worth, Texas, as one of 100 contestants in the first International Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition. I had entered the competition as a lark, never thinking I would get in.

But here I was, and it was my third or fourth night in Texas, and Cliburn was going to come out on stage and speak to us. Then he was going to shake everyone's hand.

Cliburn's appearance was the crowning touch to a disorienting week that, in many ways, seemed to turn the calendar back four or five decades.

Everything about Texas Christian University -- where the competition was taking place and where the big, professional Van Cliburn competition also takes place -- seemed like what I've guessed the Kennedy era must have been like. Though a good number of the contestants were from minorities, the officials who made speeches were all white men in suits. They spoke of America and freedom.

Cliburn, when he walked out on stage, looked like . . . like . . .

"Like a Southern preacher," said one guy I'd gotten friendly with, a Fort Worth TV reporter. He was right.

Cliburn was tall and lanky, like the other officials, wore a suit and tie. He smiled a lot, a slow Southern smile. There was a glow about him, and a sweetness.

He made a speech, and I'm afraid I can't remember a word of it. Then we all lined up on stage, like a class on graduation day, and got ready to shake his hand.

This was a big moment. For me to meet Cliburn would be, I guess, like a hoops player at the Gloria Parks Community Center meeting Michael Jordan, or a community playhouse star meeting Marlon Brando. Waiting in line, I was jumpy. I had become buddies with an IBM executive who, like me and about 60 other contestants, had prepared for the competition by learning Chopin's G minor Ballade. He stood with me in line, and we giggled like high-schoolers. We made a deal: When it was my turn, he'd take my picture, and when it was his turn, I'd take his.

The moment arrived. I approached Cliburn, and it seems the great pianist handed me something, though I don't recall what. A CD? A certificate? Who knows? It's a blur. All I remember is that as my IBM friend clicked the camera, Cliburn opened his arms and I fell into them. Cliburn smelled great; he wore wonderful cologne. He was murmuring tender, reassuring things. "Oh, you're so sweet," he said. "Oh, you're so nice. You're so beautiful."

Those are words, of course, that nobody can hear too often. I loved it.

And that, you'd think, would have been the end of the story. But it wasn't. Later, the buzz went around that Cliburn was inviting us all back to his house.

The Byzantine proceedings added to the fairy-tale ambience. We had no formal invitation, no advance notice. Anyone who had ducked out early that evening missed everything. We were told to approach somebody, one of the contest organizers, for directions.

A bunch of us convoyed to Cliburn's house. We formed a long chain of headlights along dark, curving roads on the outskirts of Fort Worth. After parking outside the estate, we began making our way up a long, tree-lined walkway.

Cliburn lives in the most gorgeous mansion I have ever seen, and this includes anything Hollywood has ever shown me. He was at the door to hug us all as we walked in.

Which brings me to my one regret: As Cliburn smiled at me, greeting me, I took his picture. I felt bad right away. I already had pictures of him. Why had I taken another? He laughed, and he hugged me again (giving me another dose of that cologne), and he didn't seem to mind. But if I were to do over again, I wouldn't have snapped that picture. At this point, I was a guest, not a tourist.

Cliburn ushered us into the lush, gilt, candlelit rooms and made it clear that we should make ourselves at home. Uniformed staff stood around handing us wine and cocktails. The house was magnificent, sparkling with mirrors, splendid antiques, sculptures and paintings.

A couple of things struck me. One, there were a lot of pianos. Every room seemed to hold a Steinway grand. Some contestants tried an instrument out; no signs told us not to touch.

Two, there were also a lot of pictures of Cliburn's mother. She peered at us from atop the grand pianos, in small, delicately framed photos. Other pictures of her were almost mural-sized. Clearly, her son had adored her.

A physician we had met who was from Little Rock, Ark., got the job of carrying around Cliburn's little white lap dog. She was still holding the pooch when our whole group adjourned to the terrace for a late-night banquet.

What a lovely night it was! We helped ourselves inside from rows of glowing chafing dishes and then sat at round tables set with white tablecloths, gazing down at acres of gardens softly lighted by lanterns. I remember marveling at the opulence of the view with another pianist who was some kind of television news anchor, I think from the Fox network. (It was tough to get straight who had what job. What really mattered was how well you could play Schubert.)

Some time during the evening, in Great Gatsby fashion, Cliburn disappeared. I don't remember his being there to see us out when we left.

Actually, I don't remember much about the evening at all, except the glow of it. I wish there were more to the story.

But I'm afraid that, shamed after snapping Cliburn's picture, I had stopped taking notes. It seemed touching that this enigmatic, reclusive artist had let us into his house to see his secrets. I felt trusted, privileged and a little protective. For once in my life, I didn't want to run my mouth.

Over two years later, I still find myself thinking at length from time to time about this kind, absurd, angelic man. I think of him living his timeless life in that overblown, glorious house, declining interviews, not playing in public. I imagine him lost in the Never Never Land of Chopin and Brahms and Schubert and Tchaikovsky -- exquisite, unearthly music. I could be romanticizing things; I could be completely wrong. But I can only imagine him surrounded with beauty.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com