The 20th century Cold War era was particularly worrisome for youngsters. I recall we school-age kids were taught to "duck and cover" under our desks in case of nuclear attack. At home, parents invested in portable Civil Defense transistor radios and even backyard bomb shelters.
In 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened the West, declaring, "We will bury you!" Four years later he banged his shoe in protest during a United Nations assembly. He was a scary man for kids to see on the family Magnavox.
In February 1958, there was a respite in the war of words. A young Shreveport-born pianist entered the first Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition. A Russian was supposed to win, but Van Cliburn took the prize and stole Muscovite hearts. They lauded him with an eight-minute standing ovation.
Cliburn gained instant celebrity, with a New York ticker tape parade and a Time magazine cover declaring him the Texan who conquered Russia. The largest orchestra in his native state, the New Orleans Philharmonic, nabbed him for a concert. He played exactly 60 years ago today, on Nov. 11, 1958.
My Covington family did not attend that concert. But a few months later my parents decided we needed a new piano and hauled us across the lake to Werlein's, the venerable Canal Street music store. We were welcomed warmly. Our family had done business there for generations. The showroom overlooking the wide thoroughfare was filled with Steinways the size of cars without tail fins. Mother had similar impressions. After playing a few, she declared, "These are just too big for our living room."
"I have just the piano," the salesman said.
We were ushered into a small practice room containing an upright Steinway. With a dark walnut stain and fluted wooden support columns topped with pineapple-like finials, it was unique.
My older sister sat down and played; my mother followed. Upon finishing, Mother lifted her hands from the keyboard and cast her vote: "This piano has a beautiful tone."
The salesman responded, "Then, Mrs. Talley, you agree with Van Cliburn."
Cliburn had rehearsed on the upright while the concert grand was moved from the store to the Municipal Auditorium for his concert. Cliburn commented to store personnel on its fine qualities — qualities still resonating as my mother played even until weeks before her death last July.
In 2016, I attended a special piano recital at the Crystal Bridge of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, where I now live, to see and hear a gift to the museum: A Steinway grand from Van Cliburn’s personal collection. Among dignitaries attending was a representative from New York-based Steinway and Sons.
Performing was Olga Kern, the first woman to capture the Van Cliburn competition gold in 30 years. As music filled the arched wooden and glass hall, water rippled below, tree branches swayed in the gentle breeze and a cloud-dappled sky completed the cyclorama behind the piano and pianist.
Earlier that day, I slipped a photo of my mother's "Cliburn" piano into my pocket. After the recital I shared our family story with the Steinway representative. He verified the common practice of touring pianists practicing, in seclusion, on such upright pianos. I gave him the photo.
It was the least I could have done. The New Yorker had provided validation to a Southern family's tale of a special piano purchased on a warm New Orleans afternoon at the height of the Cold War.
— Talley lives in Bentonville, Arkansas
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