I was sad to hear about Van Cliburn’s death today, but very happy to see a well-written article in The Washington Post about his life and art. His slight goofiness and affinity for Rachmaninoff (my favorite composer) always made me have a soft spot for his great piano music renditions.
I have been working on a book of essays in between noveling and my other endeavors for a while now, and Cliburn’s passing made me think of a perpetual memory from my childhood, which was full of lovely piano music thanks to my mother. This memory is captured in a piece of one of these essays below:
My late mother was a pianist/accompanist/opera coach/flutist extraordinaire who I remember practicing constantly as my sister and I were falling asleep at night. The grand piano in our living room would vibrate and waft up the stairs into my room as she crafted circusy Rimski-Korsakov phrases or struggled through passages from some modern, dissonant composition, turning passages over and over again until they were technically and expressively flawless. (During her more obsessive practice sessions, I’d lie awake waiting for it to stop, or drift off into repetitive nightmares.) Other times, Debussy and Chopin would lull me into a familiar sleep of peaceful dreams.
To this day, I’ve never heard a pianist as able to convey emotion and intensity so fitting to each individual piece of music and so true to what I imagined was every composer’s vision. She took us to operas, recitals and concerts almost every weekend (many of which she was performing in or helping pull off), had us cavorting with well-known, highly-skilled, probably often famous musicians (I still don’t think I know fully the scope of those I met throughout my formative years), composers and artists starting when we were babies, with no fear of how we might behave in places where we needed to be quiet. In fact, I think we just simply behaved because we just knew that music required reverence and we respected the work it took to craft and perform it. I know I personally saw it as something sacred that could stop time and space (and I still do). There was no end to the new dimensions I could hear, even when listening to the same pieces over and over again. I probably innately knew (without even knowing) more about the different styles and periods of what people consider “classical music” at age four than a lot of adults (even musicians) ever learn in their lifetime.