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Van Cliburn and My Two Enchanted Evenings

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News last week of the death of pianist Van Cliburn brought back fond memories for me, of someone who made an indelible impression on me at a young age.

I was 14 when my piano teacher told me that an extraordinary young pianist was coming to our town, Florence, Alabama, in concert. She said the city library had a biography of him and that I should read it and get a ticket to the event.

I devoured the book. Van Cliburn had begun playing piano at age four, and his mother -- a gifted musician who had studied under a student of Franz Liszt -- was his only teacher until he went to Julliard at 17. Six years later, in 1958, he stole the hearts of the Russian people when he won the first Soviet-sponsored Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. In doing so, he broke the ice between the Soviet Union and the capitalist world. Upon his return, he was the first classical musician ever to be honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City.

By the end of the book, I had a crush on the 6'4" Texan and was dying to see him. But finding a ticket wasn't easy. The concert was one of four in a sold-out season. And although my parents didn't object to my going, they couldn't help me. Eventually my piano teacher learned that the parents of another of her students had a ticket they weren't using. So I borrowed it for $12.50.

At last the big night came. My mother dropped me off at the high school auditorium and I found my seat. When Mr. Cliburn walked onto the stage, he was everything I expected and more. He took a courtly bow, sat down on the padded piano bench, flipped back the tails of his coat, raised his hands into the air and began to play. The sound was unlike anything I'd ever heard, the sight the most beautiful I'd ever seen. The sublime melodies of Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin filled the room.

When the concert was over, I was first in line backstage to get his autograph. He was standing in a doorway, smoking a cigarette. His hand trembled a little as he signed my program
On the ride home, I tried to describe to Mother what had happened, but there were no words really to capture what the experience had meant to me. I had glimpsed a world that I knew nothing about but wanted more of. I lay awake all night, reliving every detail.

The next year my father gave me the fifty dollars to buy my own season ticket to the concert series. On the program were more masters, including violinist Isaac Stern. But it was the evening with Van Cliburn that I held in my heart. I wished I could tell him what it had meant to me. Then, about 40 years later, I did. I was headed home to Los Angeles, following the funeral of a friend in Mississippi. I quickly boarded a plane in Dallas, buckled myself into my aisle seat and looked up. There, standing about six rows in front of me was Van Cliburn.

I thought I was seeing things. But it was the tall, handsome Texan all right.

After we'd been in the air for a while, I pulled out my yellow pad and wrote him a note about that night long ago. I asked the flight attendant to take it to him, thinking I'd walk by later and shake his hand.

But soon he got up and spoke to the flight attendant, and the two of them headed my way. The attendant nodded towards me and said, "The blonde lady." I couldn't believe my eyes. Van Cliburn was coming to me.

"Are you Mary?" he asked when he reached me. When I nodded, he leaned down and, with those long slender virtuoso fingers, took my hand in both of his.

"I cannot tell you how touched I am by your note," he said. He shook his head as he tried to remember the concert and Florence, but that didn't matter; it could easily have been another time, another town.

He said he wanted to write something to me so I handed him my pad. He propped it on the back of the seat in front of me and wrote me a note. We talked a minute more, and when I reached to shake his hand, he bent down and kissed me on the cheek.

The rest of the flight evaporated. At the baggage claim at LAX, he walked over to me and thanked me again. We talked about his going to Julliard at such a young age and about his mother.

Then his driver appeared and lifted his bag off the conveyor, and he was ready to go.

"I can't tell you how special this evening has been for me," I said. "For me, too," he replied. "And I'm just stunned by the passage of time." When he said goodbye and hugged me, we held to each other for an extra split second before he turned and was gone.