Van Cliburn Changed My Life
Many of us have someone who most likely caused us to enter the work that consumed our lives.
That was certainly true with me. The death of Van Cliburn last week brought back a flood of memories from my youth and reflections on a life and joyful career in music.
Mrs. McKenzie, my elementary teacher back in Brevard, N.C., must have had some special insight. I would go to school an hour early and diagram my sentences for her. At 10 a.m., she would allow me to go across the street to First Baptist Church and listen to the organist, Emma Sue Bosse, do her morning practice. I was transfixed by the lovely sounds.
Then, like being struck by a bolt of lightning on a clear day, I heard a broadcast of Van Cliburn's performance in Moscow.
Texan Cliburn, then 23, became an international celebrity in 1958, the height of the Cold War, when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. It stunned not only the musical world but the political world as well after Nikita Khrushchev endorsed him as "the best." Cliburn returned to America as a hero, receiving a tickertape parade in New York - the only classical musician ever so honored.
As I sat listening to the Tchaikovsky Concerto for piano and orchestra, I knew without a doubt that music was going to be my life. I then bought a record (remember that word?) of the Moscow performance of the Tchaikovsky First and the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 on the other side. These pieces were my lullabies every night through high school. I could probably conduct them without the score even now.
I began piano study with Miss Bosse, and she introduced me to J.S. Bach - and then said one day, "Johnny, would you like to go over to the old building and play the organ?"
The old building was the former sanctuary. And as St Cecilia would have it, it housed a Wurlitzer (Radio City) theater organ. It had lightning and thunder, snare drums, bells of all sorts - just where did those Baptists come up with this!?
All the while, Mrs. McKenzie continued to allow me to listen to Miss Bosse. Somehow, she knew that it must happen. And all the while, Van Cliburn's performances continued to bring tears of joy to my eyes.
My parents were not quite as thrilled as I about this musical awakening, I must add. I was a bit out of step with possible careers. Fortunately, they thought going to college would sober me up a bit. But Van Cliburn kept playing. By now there were many recordings, and most of them were sitting beside my record player.
I suppose the final nail in my musical coffin was created not by Van Cliburn, but by several of his contemporaries. I'm sure many folks reading this have gone to Brevard Music Center to hear the lovely concerts. One night, a rainy one - not at all uncommon in Brevard - I had gone to the BMC for the evening. In those days, the concert hall was a barn open on the sides to the outside.
The first half of the program was Charles Delaney, of Indiana University, playing flute, and Edward Vito playing harp for a Mozart Concerto. With the rain and the music and the second half of the program, Byron Janis playing Rachmaninoff If there ever was a doubt, it was gone.
Since those youthful days, I have joyfully served four churches - Central Congregational in Worcester, Mass., First United Methodist in Charlotte, Christ United Methodist in Greensboro, and Emmanuel Episcopal in Southern Pines.
Do you think that Van Cliburn could have ever imagined that he would have had such a far-reaching influence? Thank you Mr. Cliburn. And how can I ever thank you, Miss Bosse and Mrs. McKenzie?
Johnny Bradburn, retired organist and choirmaster at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Southern Pines, lives in Pinehurst.
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