Student Anita Pari performs a piece on Van Cliburn's piano.

Carleton Hosts a Magical Night with Van Cliburn’s Steinway 

By Lesley Barry 
Photos by Chris Roussakis 

There was magic in the air that night.

In an old and honourable tradition, students and devotees gathered to look upon – and listen to – the relic of a great master to find guidance and inspiration. The setting was Carleton’s Kailash Mital Theatre, the date was March 22, and the relic was a Steinway concert piano handpicked years before by the legendary classical pianist Van Cliburn for its exquisite sensitivity and beautiful tone.

“It’s a love affair,” says James Wright, Carleton music professor, describing the intimate relationship between a concert pianist and their Steinway.

“A Steinway takes at least a year to build, and each one has its own character. Great artists go to the Steinway store in New York and spend days with the pianos there before they select one. And then they stay together for the rest of their lives.”

Van Cliburn’s name resounded around the world in 1958. Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their peak when the lanky, friendly Texan travelled to Moscow and won the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. Instantly he was famous, and photographs of he and then Soviet president Nikita Khruschev embracing changed the tone of the Cold War and garnered him a ticker-tape parade – the only one ever given to a classical musician – on his return to New York City.

Van Cliburn’s Piano Remains

Van Cliburn died in 2013, but his favourite grand piano, which now bears his name, remains. When it passed through Ottawa recently, Troy Scharf, general manager of Steinway, approached Wright about a Van Cliburn event, and a sublime program of history and performance, inspiration and magic quickly came together.

Two Ottawa-based musicians revealed to the rapt audience – and to the pianists themselves – the Steinway’s capacity for extraordinary nuance and virtuosity.

“I loved the piano,” reported Anita Pari, a prodigy who has been performing since she was six years old and is now in her second year of Carleton’s music program. Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso is a quick, lively movement requiring great technical skill. “The piano made it easy for me to play the faster passages. It responded beautifully to what I was trying to express.”

In contrast, John Dapaah, a graduate of Carleton and McGill’s music programs who has played for two Governor Generals, drew out the piano’s rich tonal quality with his own jazz interpretation of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

“It’s one of my favourite songs,” said Dapaah, “and playing it on Van Cliburn’s Steinway was amazing. It’s a very sensitive instrument – any little movement of the finger affects it – with this lush sound.”

Van Cliburn Piano Competition

Van Cliburn’s legacy extends to the prestigious quadrennial Van Cliburn Piano Competition, one of whose adjudicators is Canadian piano virtuoso Jamie Parker. After the two performances, Parker beamed in via video link from Toronto with a presentation.

“Hearing first-hand about an international competition can really inspire a student to up their game,” says Wright. “They start to think about how they can grow that next bit farther.”

Then, the stunning finale, brought about by the wizards at Steinway: a performance of a Brahms Intermezzo by Van Cliburn himself through a Steinway Spirio. Software and the Spirio high resolution playback system combine to reverse-engineer recordings of classical performances and reproduce them with a superb accuracy.

“It really was Van Cliburn playing,” Wright marvels. “It isn’t a recording. Through the miracle of technology, his fingers are making the keys move, and the piano itself is producing the music. You watch the keys moving on their own, and . . .  well, it’s a little bit spooky.”

While the man himself is gone, his legacy extends beyond a collection of beautiful recordings.

More than a Cold War Anecdote

“Van Cliburn’s story isn’t just a Cold War anecdote,” insists Wright. “It was yet another example – and we continue to need them today – of how great art transcends divisions. My hope is that bringing his Steinway here has encouraged our students not only to become better musicians, but to think about how they can use their art to reach across boundaries and political divides.”

“Music is a powerful language,” Dapaah concurs, “and Van Cliburn showed us that it’s one we all share. It was an honour to play his piano.”

A performance on Van Cliburn's piano.Troy Scharf speaks at a podium before the performance on Van Cliburn's piano.