Flashback: Meeting Van Cliburn after his 1976 Anchorage performance

Mike Dunham

Van Cliburn performed in Anchorage in spring 1976, a recital that included big works by Rachmaninoff and Brahms. West High School Auditorium, the main venue for big concert events at the time, was packed and the audience received the celebrity virtuoso with great enthusiasm.

I attended a reception at the home of Anchorage Times publisher Robert Atwood after the concert. Plentiful hors d'oeuvres were served. But I noticed that after an hour of smiling and shaking hands, Van looked pale.

"Is there any real-meal restaurant open this late?" he asked me in a shaky voice.

The Restaurant at Third Avenue and E Street recently had opened its doors with all-night service. He and his mother, Rildia, joined me and some other Anchorage folks there shortly after midnight.

Cliburn soon returned to steadiness. "I don't eat before concerts," he explained, "so I'm famished when it's over, and that finger food just wasn't cutting it."

The repast lasted until well after the midnight sun started to rise above the Chugach Mountains. Cliburn picked up the whole tab.

As a young man, the phenomenon from Fort Worth paved the way for American pianists to be accepted internationally. In his later years he founded what is now among the most prestigious piano competitions in the world. In passing he leaves a legacy of recordings that may never be surpassed, particularly in the concerto literature.

In my meetings I was struck by his innate gentlemanliness. He was calm and pearly polite without a hint of condescension, cheerfully taking time to hear out the thoughts of others, though quick to challenge assumptions with his own well-informed and decisive opinions, aware of his own giant gift without letting it go to his head. Enormously talented yet as naturally humble as a songbird. He was a Texan in the best sense of the word.