Conductor: Vassily Sinaisky, with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. Reviewed July 11, 1994.
By intermission at the Hollywood Bowl on Monday night, Van Cliburn had performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a piano solo, read the words of Abraham Lincoln and Aaron Copland in the latter’s “Lincoln Portrait” and hammered his way through the thorny thickets of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. There was more to come: the even denser thorns of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. That, however, never transpired.
Instead, after the intermission had stretched far beyond its accustomed length, with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in place onstage and bursts of applause welling up from the 14,000 impatient souls out front, there came the familiar growl of Ernest Fleischmann, Los Angeles Philharmonic general director and, thus, landlord for the week of World Cup events at the Bowl: “Mr. Cliburn is slightly indisposed”; then, “Mr. Cliburn will return to the stage shortly”; finally, “Thank you for your understanding.”
By 10:30, normal ending time for Bowl events, the pianist did return, but without Moscow Philharmonic conductor Vassily Sinaisky — who had shepherded him through the Tchaikovsky, sort of. He spoke of feeling faint, a dizzy spell and blood-pressure testing; instead of the scheduled concerto, he’d like to play a few solo encores.
After a short set of pieces — a Szymanowski Etude, Schumann’s “Widmung” as transcribed by Liszt, a Debussy Prelude and the Chopin C-sharp minor Scherzo, followed by an impromptu 59th-birthday song-and-dance by Johnny Mathis and record producer David Foster — the tall Texan waved his final goodbye from the stage where he had last performed 18 years before.
Was it worth the wait? Yes, for the sentimentalists, with their adoring memories of America’s cultural conqueror, the mom’s-apple-pie of pianists, with his dimples, his golden curls, his eyes cast heavenward as he played as if taking orders from some celestial Teleprompter, the glorious 10-foot-long fingers that once could unlock the most daunting of technical puzzles. No, however, for anyone hoping to hear those puzzles unlocked once again. The sad news is that, from the evidence of this concert at least, Cliburn is better off in recollection than on the stage.
In San Diego last weekend, at the start of this 16-concert nationwide tour scheduled to end in Washington Aug. 21, he had suffered a memory lapse, and now, in Los Angeles, there were these new problems. In the Tchaikovsky concerto at the Bowl, and in the solo pieces as well, there were technical errors — blurred passages and just plain wrong notes — that would have spelled doom for any hopeful beginner. Cliburn is hardly that, but questions still arise as to the wisdom of his current return to big-time circulation.
Still, there was one moment of pure magic. It came just after Cliburn had begun his own piano version of the national anthem. The crowd responded first with delighted silence; then, ever so softly, the sing-along voices formed a mellow cloud of sound around the playing. You had to have been there.