Cambrian: Opinion

Memories of meeting Van Cliburn at Hearst Castle

Editor’s note: Internationally famed pianist Van Cliburn, 78, died of bone cancer Feb. 27 in Fort Worth, where he was remembered Sunday, March 3, at a funeral attended by notable political and artistic personages from around the world. Here we reprint a column about meeting Van Cliburn at Hearst Castle by longtime Cambrian columnist John Brannon which originally appeared in The Cambrian Nov. 21, 2002.

One of my favorite times of the day is when I have the opportunity to listen to “Afternoon Classics,” Marisa Waddell’s weekday program on KCBX. Her choice of selections perfectly complement each day.

One of her offerings on this blustery, rainy afternoon was Rachmaninoff's variation on a theme by Paganini, and what a splendid piece it was for this stormy day.

The lovely melody transported me back to an experience I had while working at Hearst Castle, nearly 10 years ago. I shall easily recall that priceless occasion for the rest of my life.

It was during the off season; word had come down that a private tour was due mid-morning. These tours are offered to those who wish to have both privacy and full access to the hilltop. Dignitaries and famous people are the typical guests who take advantage of this special arrangement.

As I wandered about in the Refectory (the large dining room), I was aware of piano music coming from the Assemby Room (the great front room).

Regular guests are reminded not to touch things along the tour routes; but on the guided private tours, it is not unusual for musicians to noodle a few notes on the grand piano.

“This person is good,” I thought to myself, as I stood next to the closed door. Castle employees are discouraged from intruding into these private tours; but when the music came to an end, I was moved to enter the huge room and thank the performer for the musical interlude.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I don’t mean to interfere, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the music ... was that Schubert?”

The piano was situated in front of a large window on the south wall of the room. The pianist stood as I addressed him.

“Why, thank you so much,” he replied, his form silhouetted against the sunlight streaming into the room. “No, that was by Schumann; it’s one of my favorite pieces of music. I'm so glad you liked it.”

I immediately recognized the backlit figure. Without concern for the “rules,” I swallowed hard and was able to blurt out, “Oh, my gosh, I know who you are. Please, may I shake your hand?”

“Certainly,” he said without pause as he stepped around the piano and moved toward me, his right hand extended to shake mine.

He was tall, perhaps six-three or six-four. His hand enveloped mine; I was surprised at how long and slender his fingers were. His grasp was warm and friendly.

He smiled and asked, “And what is your name?”

“I’m John Brannon, Mr. Cliburn. I have been a devoted fan and admirer of yours for many years.” And that was how I met the world-famous pianist Van Cliburn.

“Tell me, John, do you play the piano?”

Lisa, the guide, was looking daggers at me. At that moment, I wouldn’t have cared if rifles had been pointed at me — this was the chance of a lifetime, and I wasn’t about to let it slip by me.

“No, I’m not a musician, but music is extremely important in my life. I must tell you how you are part of my day quite often.

“There are times when, after dealing with the problems of guests at the Castle, and it has been a particularly hot and uncomfortable day, I put on your CD of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto as soon as I walk into my home. The music is always a poultice for my wilted soul; I sit in my chair and watch the setting sun over the pine trees and glistening sea until I feel human again.”

“How nice of you to say that, John. That piece will always be a part of my life; it was the selection I played when I won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia in 1958.

“This is Thomas, my assistant. Why don’t you join us for the rest of our tour?” he said.

Lisa was now looking swords at me.

“That's very kind of you,” I replied, “but I have duties to attend to. I just wanted to meet you and mention how you contribute to my sanity when I feel overwhelmed. And another thing, I want to thank you for contributing to the world of music by supporting the international piano competitions in Fort Worth. Without a doubt, your success in Moscow so many years ago inspired countless musicians to pursue a career in music. You will never know how many lives you’ve touched.”

“Well,” he said in his soft Texas drawl, “if you enjoy my Tchaikovsky first so much, I’m sure you’d like my version of Rachmaninoff's third. Thomas, get John’s address; I’ll send him a CD.”

“Where shall I mail the check to?” I asked.

He smiled. “Don’t be silly, I’ll give you the recording.”

“You can’t afford to do that,” I said facetiously.

While waiting for the tea kettle to boil, I found the small box in the living room cabinet and put it on the table next to my recliner.

After placing the steaming mug of fragrant tea on the table, I sat in the chair and removed the CD and its accompanying note from the box: “To John Brannon, with deep appreciation and all best wishes. — Van Cliburn.”

The wind-blown raindrops sounded like rice thrown against the window pane. The fire in the fireplace snapped and popped, adding a warm, comfortable feeling to the room filled with the supremely rhapsodic emotions Rachmaninoff put to paper nearly 100 years ago.

I hope guide Lisa has forgiven me for barging into her tour in 1994.