piano, piano blog, piano blogging, piano competition, Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn’s Tchaikovsky No. 1 concerto revisited

Cliburn Moscow

Van Cliburn’s named popped up on one of the piano forums. Would he have made the same formidable impression in today’s Moscow Competition as he did in 1958?

The answer is simply YES, and resurrecting a flashback of his winning performance sheds light on how and why his Tchaikovsky 1, at least for me, stands out as uniquely memorable. (I might add that I heard Van play the towering signature concerto at Lewisohn Stadium in the Bronx under the baton of Kiril Kondrashin upon the pianist’s US return)

It was evident that Van allowed the concerto to play itself with its unswerving, embedded lyricism. He didn’t toy with phrases, fight the bravura octaves, or apply extreme rubato to distort musical lines. His gorgeous singing tone was unabated through the most challenging cascades of notes and his thread of MELODY permeated the most dizzying passagework. Yet Van made his virtuoso journey look effortless with big, relaxed gestures of his arms that funneled energy down through his wrists into fluid finger approaches into the keys.

There was no battlefield landscape, as perhaps the 1812 Overture might have evoked. Van knew better than to leave listeners with a one dimensional warhorse impression. He respected the immense color palette of the composer’s creation and its underlying singing dimension.

In the concluding Presto movement, Van imbued more contrasts through rhythmically animated chords. He refused to carbon copy measures of the same. His playing had dynamic variation and riveting emotional engagement without a forced pushing, pulling, poking or prodding of phrases.

Finally, Cliburn was at all times a soloist and collaborator, embedded in expressive counterpoint/dialog with the orchestra in an interactively pulsating exchange.

On so many levels, Cliburn was a winner back in 1958, and I surmise, in today’s Moscow Competition 2015, he would be my undeniable favorite.

The XV International Tchaikovsky Competition resumes today, June 30, in a Medici TV beamed LIVESTREAM.





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Piano “Competitions”–Do we need them?

The word “competition” in the realm of music-making doesn’t work for me. Those who serve the poetry of music and view technique, not as athletically driven, but as a means to a higher artistic end can be offended by glitzy, media-hyped productions that show young Asian, American, Russian, etc. flowers of youth posing for thumbnail video sketches like Olympic hopefuls.

Some young entrants at multiple concours here and abroad, might consider a personal trainer, wardrobe adviser, PR person, and face-making coach to help them advance to the winners circle.

A cute smile, tilt of the head, or even tongue twisting maneuver might side-step going through the hoops, recital after recital, in pursuit of the GOLD.

A good media profile, culled months if not years before the BIG EVENT might land an aspirant a budding career. (as long as it’s technology bundled)

In this age of mp3s, quickie uploads, you tube playing flashes, blogs, vlogs, logs—pods, pads, and anything new on the horizon that will outdate the former, young pianistic talents have to adapt to changin’ media channels.

The good news, if one favorably views the NEW WORLD we live in, is that our current generation of gifted pianists are WITH IT, having a generous grounding in computers, originating in Kindergarten.

Hence, their websites are streamlined and hyper-linked to guarantee maximum exposure.

But back to competitions.

In the era of Van Cliburn, dating to his win in 1958, the environment was DIFFERENT. It was a resoundingly POLITICAL era.. Not to say that “Vanya” didn’t deserve to claim the Gold at the prestigious Tschaikovsky Competition in Moscow circa 1958, but the COLD WAR was raging and a thaw was a welcome, DRAMATIC, if not world-changing event. (And Cliburn rode the crest)

Cliburn Moscow

The tall rangy, sandy-haired TEXAN was at the right place during an opportune historical moment that bestowed an unheard of ticker tape parade for a musician in Lower Manhattan!!!!! (Who would believe??)

The Gold RCA generated Vinyl RECORD of Van and Kiril Kondrashin collaborating in Tschaikovsky’s Bb minor concerto earned the young pianist a life-long following and solid, financially secure life.

Would it be the same today for Van or any other first place winner of a high profile International Competition? It doesn’t necessarily follow. Too many current Cliburn entrants to the current 14th International convergence, have racked up victories all over the world, yet they’re still in feverish pursuit of another big PRIZE that might have enduring value. (throw in an appearance on ELLEN to assist!)

In that vein, consider the so-called prodigies, some of whom have won the undeserving, premature attention of ELLEN DEGENERES as they savor 15 minutes of fame at the instigation of pushy parents. In truth, some of these preemies need to stay home and practice for at least 10 to 15 years before banging their way to final cadences on the public stage. Maybe some day they’ll make it in the competitive arena!


Murray Perahia, my personal musical hero, and poet of the piano, avoided the prodigy loop for early recognition, and did the LEEDS Competition in the UK back a few decades. His win sparked a great, enduring career, but times were qualitatively different then. Young talented musicians picked and carefully chose a PRESTIGIOUS competition to enter and didn’t have to run around to scads of them. They hoped ONE victory would CAPTURE enough attention to stop their FRENZIED pursuit.

Consider as well the judges at these competitions: Many have taught a truckload of entrants or are linked by the next generation to teachers who might have taught mentors of these newbies, and by further association to piano-playing pedagogues in the OLD COUNTRY.

Veda Kaplinksy, Chair of the Juilliard Piano Department and a frequent jurist, excuses herself from voting for her own students at the Cliburn Competition and Lord know where else? But how could she realistically manage to keep track of the complex lineage of professorial forebears without doing a current genealogy search on the WEB.

Seymour Bernstein, pianist, teacher, author, has now become so incensed about the competition milieu and its impure environment that he sent out an all points bulletin registering his discontent with the whole atmosphere that pits pianists as rivals, while he expressed outrage that one of his favored entrants, Sara Daneshpour, was not a chosen semi-finalist. (her website: http://www.saradaneshpour.com/)

With Seymour’s permission, I’ve memorialized his riveting statement, “NO COMPETITIONS”

Dear friends,
I have concluded something that I wish to share with everyone on my mailing list: the Cliburn Competition has revealed the greatest young performers among us. Of course there are other qualified performers who were not chosen for non-musical reasons: either they haven’t won a major competition, or they never performed with a major orchestra, to mention only two reasons.

This is my conclusion: The word “competition” must be eliminated. The Cliburn Competition is rich enough to expose these phenomenal young artists to the world for one reason only: they ought to be heard as models of human achievement on the highest level, and they ought not to have to compete with one another.

The worst aspect of competitions is the assumption that jury members are qualified to judge who is the best among the competitors. This is impossible given each person’s varied tastes. I, myself have adjudicated at major competitions where a pupil of mine was among the competitors. While I was not allowed to vote for that pupil, my colleagues knew that I taught that contestant simply by reading the bios of the competitors. Some jury members will want to support me and my pupil, while others, compelled to uphold fairness at all cost, may vote against my pupil.

In addition, I have known jury members to support a competitor who studies with a close colleague. Finally, jury members are not beyond the possibility of falling prey to sexual attraction. Considering the human factor, visual attractiveness may override objective listening.

Considering these factors, let’s vote for abolishing all competitions. Let’s have these performers share their artistry with us for no other purpose than to inspire us with their accomplishments, thereby spreading the essence of the divine art of music to a world sorely in need of it. Let’s all write to the competition board and suggest this for future Webcasts.



My comment: While I agree with Seymour’s assertions, my underlying thesis is that our culture should properly nourish and sustain musicians, and not force them into competitive environments.

Many Juilliard grads, for example, when researched a decade after their graduation could not make a living at what they loved, cherished, and nurtured since childhood. (Competitions, notwithstanding)


In conclusion, until we get off the instant message, mp3 driven train, abandoning LIVE concerts, and drinking the KOOL AID served up by sound byte-ing advertisers, (the not so hidden persuaders) we’ll always have aspiring pianists taking an alternate route, far afield form their first love, just to put bread on the table.

And what a loss to a society that should embrace those who have something SPIRITUAL to offer in a world plagued by violence and all the rest we should abhor.


Seymour Bernstein speaks even louder about Piano Competitions and the need for CHANGE:


Star Telegram, questions jury ties to competitors at Cliburn Competition


Memories of Van Cliburn


The 14th International Van Cliburn Competition


click ON DEMAND LINK to hear performances of all entrants

1958 Tschaikovsky Piano Competition, Moscow, piano, piano competitions, Tschaikovsky, Tschaikovsky Piano concerto in Bb minor, Van Cliburn, word press, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video, you tube.com, yout tube, youtube.com

Rekindling memories of Van Cliburn, the Cold War, Kirill Kondrashin, etc

Cliburn Moscow

A friend sent me a link to her favorite performance of Tschaikovsky’s Bb minor, WARHORSE concerto– the one with the big splash CHORD opener.

Pianists dream of conquering these sonorities without a falter, but not necessarily in their lifetime.

For me the easiest way to reach to the stars on this one, was to sit at our family’s sallow, 1950s yellow dinette table and pretend I was Van Cliburn. Shaping my small hands to the imagined size of the sonorities, I played along with Kirill Kondrashin’s RCA Victor recording.

A feted hero of the Cold War, breaking the ice with my sizzling Moscow performance, I had the audience in my palms, riveted to my sweeping, sculpted phrases and shimmering passage work. And in the absence of a cultural or musical divide, I was offered a RED carpet of love and goodwill, drowned in flowers, bravos– my name, “Vanya” cut through deafening applause.

To Americans, I was just TEXAS-bred “VAN,” taller than most, and with a shock of red hair. My appearance singled me out in a crowd. I had the look of an Adonis athlete with my towering height and big, powerful hands.

Were I a basketball player, I’d be hoisted up on the shoulders of my teammates, in Spartan victory.

But with my ice breaker, even in the hockey arena, I’d be regaled when I returned to the states– showered with ticker tape along Lower Broadway.

Those were the days when take cover drills and mass hysteria were par for the course. Second-graders would squeeze themselves under tiny chairs, wondering what happened– or even worse, what MIGHT happen.

While they were immunized against polio, the threat of an impending World War III left them unprotected and vulnerable.

Flash forward to the Millennium:

Van Cliburn is a legend in his own time–a tireless advocate for the arts, a builder from the ground up of his Van Cliburn Foundation that sponsors an International Piano Competition. He’s been a life-long piano ambassador, spreading LOVE and good will at every turn.

We owe him a debt of gratitude.

I recently learned that Van, now 78, has advanced bone cancer, and like so many of his admirers around the world, I pray for him.

The best tribute I can bestow that’s at my fingertips, decades past my Bronx era table-top tapping, is to replay Van’s historic Moscow performance. So here it is:

And a snatch from a 1962 rendering, back in Moscow– third movement–(gorgeous, GORGEOUS!!)

NYT Cliburn page 1

P.S. I heard Cliburn revisit this concerto at Lewisohn Stadium. My mother took me, and we sat pretty high up in the great outdoors. The opening chords and Cliburn’s movements were unsynchronized, but I recall that evening as a breathtaking musical experience!



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An ageless pianist and her historic concert (I was there)

This is the program that I preserved from the event. It was contained in a boxful of musical artifacts that my mother sent me.

On March 28th, 1960, I was present at Madame Rosina Lhevinne’s Eightieth Birthday celebration concert held at the Juilliard School, and it was an evening to remember. I received the ticket compliments of Lillian Freundlich my piano teacher, through her husband, Irwin, who was then Chair of the Piano Department.

Jean Morel conducted the Juilliard Orchestra as Lhevinne played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major like an angel. In the audience were many of her students including John Browning and Lee Luvisi. I’m not sure if Van Cliburn made it to the event, but there was a tribute to the pianist given by William Schuman, President.

Years later when I arrived at the Oberlin Conservatory, I discovered a recording on vinyl of this very concert in the Con Library. It re-awakened the magic of the ageless pianist’s memorable performance.

Sparkling passagework was cloaked in a beautiful singing tone, and if I had closed my eyes, I would have imagined an effervescent young pianist in the throes of musical passion.

I discovered a You Tube re-visit of Lhevinne’s Juilliard concert, 3rd Movement, Mozart 21. (recorded “live”) Keep in mind that she was 80!!!

Another inspired concert: Lhevinne was 82 when she performed the Chopin E Minor piano concerto under Bernstein’s baton, making her debut with the New York Philharmonic:

From the Documentary The Legacy Of Rosina Lhevinne: A Portrait Of The Legendary Pianist
Rosina Lhevinne, Van Cliburn, John Williams
Release Date: 11/15/2011
“Rosina Lhevinne’s remarkable solo performing career began at age 75 and climaxed at age 82 when she made her spectacular debut with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor.

“This extraordinarily beautiful performance, as well as her previously unreleased chamber music recordings, is heard throughout the film.”

Label: Kultur Video Catalog #: 4762
Encoding: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada)
Composer: Various
Performer: Rosina Lhévinne

Number of Discs: 1
Length: 56 Mins.

There are snatches of this film on You Tube. Here’s the trailer:

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Great Piano Teaching Moments

This remarkable piece of film footage inspired a stream of others.

Nadia Boulanger (b.1887-d.1979) the esteemed teacher, composer, theoretician, organist, pianist, taught and influenced so many great musical creators such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston and Philip Glass.

From Wikipedia:

“Boulanger’s teaching methods included traditional harmony, score reading at the piano, species counterpoint, analysis, and sight singing (using fixed-Do solfège). She disapproved of innovation for innovation’s sake: “When you are writing music of your own, never strain to avoid the obvious.”[7] “You need an established language and then, within that established language, the liberty to be yourself. It’s always necessary to be yourself – that is a mark of genius in itself.”

In this brief teaching encounter with a 10 year old student, Boulanger identifies a change of key or “modulation” in a Mozart Fantasy as a moment of poignancy. She illuminates a harmonic transition from the somber B minor tonality to the brighter D Major as the student draws closer to the composer and his intention.

Madame Boulanger’s teaching, albeit just a snatch, puts into perspective why a total musician cannot just read notes, learn proper fingering, and perhaps identify a few rudimentary chord progressions.

Layers of learning over years foster an in depth exploration of the musical art form.

Rosina Lhevinne

I turn to another influential teacher with a video sample from her studio. The wife of esteemed concert pianist, Joseph Lhevinne, Rosina came into her own after her husband’s death and subsequently joined the esteemed Juilliard faculty. Van Cliburn, John Browning, Misha Dichter, John Williams, and Edward Auer were among her well known students.

By way of anecdote, I heard Madame Lhevinne play at the old Juilliard School at W. 125th Street in Manhattan on the occasion of her 80th birthday. She divinely performed the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 21 in C Major under the able baton of Jean Morel. It was a historic performance, surpassed only by her appearance at age 82, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, playing the Chopin E minor Piano Concerto.

In the course of this film, Lhevinne helps the young Misha Dichter by singing phrases herself while artfully shaping them. She also demonstrates weight transfer between fingers in fostering a legato, or smooth and connected touch. In the introduction preceding the masterclass, Artur Rubinstein, John Williams, John Browning, Robert Mann, and Misha Dichter make compelling comments about Lhevinne’s approach to teaching.

Here are a few other snatches from classes of inspiring teachers:

Richard Goode shares his ideas about Chopin and Beethoven.

Murray Perahia: Words of wisdom about the music of Bach and mood setting.

Alfred Brendel presents a Masterclass at the New England Conservatory:

I was fortunate to have observed one of Brendel’s classes at the Oberlin Conservatory and he, like Rosina Lhevinne sang phrases to communicate shape, and stroked the keys rather than attacked them. He played with an immaculate singing tone, and encouraged the participating students to do the same. It was very inspiring, to say the least. The masterclass given by Georgy Sebok was as illuminating for the same reasons.

Finally, Lang, Lang, mentors young Derek Wang, who plays a Liszt Rhapsody. (The teacher fleshes out the color dimension of the composer’s work and demonstrates hands on, expressive possibilities)

If you have your own favorite teaching moments, please feel free to share them.

Footnote: I participated in two masterclasses that took place in Fresno, Calfornia with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. The first was more lengthy, and very memorable. Murray worked with me on the first movement of Beethoven’s d minor, “Tempest Sonata” and fleshed out the structural dimension. Yablonskaya did a lot of demonstrating herself, but was more focused on the singing tone as it applied to a Chopin Nocturne.

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Teens, popular music then and now, Taylor Swift, throw in Five for Fighting “100 Years”

Today was by no means a first for me, a long-haired musician raised on Bach, Beethoven and Brahms teaching a teen some pop tunes by John Ondrasik and Taylor Swift while I sailed through the universe of “Liz on Top of the World” with another student. Videotaping portions of piano lessons was the natural result of these explorations. If nothing else, it had historical value.

I’d been born into the cosmos of popular music, a member of the Rock n’ Roll generation and my big brother Russ, four years older, plugged me into Alan Freed at the Paradise, Bill Haley and the Comets, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, and the Everly Brothers, among others. The music of this era could be movingly Romantic, especially the ballads. Presley singing, “Love Me Tender,” a tear jerker, and the Penguins crooning “Earth Angel,” a lilting, bittersweet melody, filled with heartfelt emotion.

Melody permeated the most rhythmically driven songs, like “Rock Around the Clock!” And “Little Darlin,'” another ear grabber, drew me instantly into its harmonically engaging universe beside its catchy banjo strumming beat.

Many of these “pop” favorites intermingled with the great Classical works of the piano literature, making me quite a well-rounded listener. It was well before my musical preferences were set in stone. Throw in Peter Seeger, Marais and Miranda, Edie Piaf (“The Street Singer”), Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and all the marvelous musical theater selections from Brigadoon, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, and I was in seventh heaven!

In the late 50’s, Van Cliburn was riding the crest of his victory in Moscow, performing his winning selection, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in Bb minor, a victory that inspired a ticker tape parade down Wall Street. I was in the throes of a full-fledged crush on him. Meanwhile, my teenage peers were exchanging “Kookie, Lend me Your Comb” pics, casting me out of their inner circle. They wanted their real friends to conform, sharing the initiation rite of fainting in the presence of heart-throb, Fabian. Or later, it was the Beatles.

I loved the Beatles, but not in the same way my peers did. “Yesterday” was for me a melancholy, heart stopper. “Hey Jude,” rocked in the Gospel style. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” had the surreal, contemporary sound with amazing, lush, sometimes dissonant sonority. I knew nothing of the LSD connection, and it didn’t matter because my love for the music prevailed. In truth, I tuned out the words of a song in my personal listening experience, but I was amazed me by how my brother and his friends memorized all the lyrics of a particular favorite, regarding words at the focus of their appreciation. I wanted to feel the melodic and harmonic contour to the exclusion of all else.

My brother had also been exploring Classical, Romantic and Expressionist music during his intense Rock ‘n Roll phase. For hours he would blast LPs of Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Rimsky Korsakov’s the “Easter Overture,” Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played on our modest phonograph. These works were his obsessions alongside Alan Freed’s rambling radio commentary.

So it was not surprising that I would emerge from my childhood and adolescence with a propensity to love a diverse menu of music that included popular, ballad, folk, symphonic, and anything that communicated a memorable melody and compelling harmonic mosaic.

Flash forward: Today, Allyse, a 16 year old high school junior at Clovis North, practiced “100 Years” by John Ondrasik, and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always” in a slow and steady tempo at my home studio.

She had brought both these favorite pieces to me a few months ago, desperately wanting to learn them. Her older brother, Alex, likewise dropped off “Liz On Top of the World” from Pride and Prejudice which I had to finger and practice in short order.

Both of these endearing piano students were members of the NOW generation, separated from me by decades. Yet despite our age difference, we were on the same page, practicing music that had meaning and evoked emotion. That’s what brought us together.

Roll the video!