Reader essay: An Encounter with Greatness


The Community Concert Series was held in the auditorium on Western Washington University's campus some 30 miles away from where we were living at the time, and on Thursday evening Van Cliburn would be playing the Steinway.

My husband, Frank, a budding piano student at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music the day Van Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Russia in 1958 at the age of 23, idolized him. Van Cliburn had made his Carnegie Hall debut at the tender age of 20.

Rhapsodic sounds of his piano recordings frequently flowed from our turntable. Attending that concert became a must.

Being poor newlyweds in the early 1970s, we realized once we arrived the price of admission was the purchase of the rest of the Community Concert season, which exceeded our means. While waiting in the hallway, hoping at the last moment to sneak in and score an empty seat, a man in a dripping raincoat bustled through the side door. Carefully evaluating us, he articulated, "Where can we park Mr. Van Cliburn's limo and can you get some coffee going for his mother?"

Ironically, the stage manager also assumed we had some official capacity as we gave parking directions and asked to have Mrs. Terry-Smith's office opened. We also managed to get a pot of coffee going.

Van Cliburn and his entourage entered in a flurry of wet coats and chatter. Frank and I managed the wet garments and settled them into the office for the few moments left before the concert. Chairs were arranged behind the curtain stage right facing the keyboard for the whole company as well as the interlopers, my husband and I.

Tall and gaunt, Mr. Van Cliburn only nudged the Steinway into position before the curtain rose and spoke to only his manager.

The playing was brilliant and we were invited to join them in the faculty office for coffee during the intermission. Desiring to be friendly, the manager asked, "Tell me about the Community Concert Series."

Not wanting to lie, Frank cautiously replied, "I really don't know anything about the Community Concert Series."

The manager looked confused as Frank responded, "We just happened to be in the hall when you came in. We were hoping to get some seats for the concert."

A hush came over the room. We were sure our fraudulent presence with this illustrious company would be abruptly terminated. Van Cliburn turned away, giving us his back.

Van Cliburn's mother, realizing the truth of the matter, broke the silence. She began to laugh in her quiet and charming way and said, "You can come as my guest to see my son perform any time you like."

Eventually a spokesperson did appear from the Community Concert Series to see if the needs of the concert artist were being met backstage. The manager assured him they had been well taken care of.

When this beautifully accomplished concert finished, the artiste and company made a hasty retreat to the limo, on to the airport and a return trip to Texas. Just before they left, his mother gave us each a warm handshake and assured us we would be more than welcome to join them again.

After 1978 and the death of his mother and his manager, Van Cliburn began his hiatus from public life. Up until his recent death, he still did a limited number of public performances, which were to great acclaim. His magnificent CDs will continue to sing from our stereo.

My husband and I made our way home that night in the rain, both of us breathless for our encounter with greatness.

- Barbara DeFreytas, Ferndale

Note: Van Cliburn died Feb. 27, 2013. He was 78 years old.

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