It is the height of the Cold War. U.S.-Russian relations have never been worse. Fear of the hydrogen bomb plagues the American confidence. The Space Race is on. In the United States, the second red scare and Hollywood blacklist leave scars on the world of filmmaking and entertainment. Culture is in a chokehold.
Russia organizes its first ever international piano competition. An American boy, just twenty-three years old, gathers enough money to sign up and make the flight.
When he gets off the plane, he is greeted by a lovely woman. "Mr. Van Cliburn?" she asks. He nods.
"Welcome to Moscow."
The year was 1958. It was Nikita Khrushchev's Soviet Union. There was no doubt about it -- in the words of Stuart Isacoff, "a Russian was supposed to win."
Until an American did.
Twenty-three-year-old Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn took first place in the first-ever International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. Yet it was not mere technical mastery that won him his historic victory. It was his soul and sheer force of passion that electrocuted the audience -- his synergy with the orchestra, his complete understanding of the Russian temperament. No American pianist has breathed life into Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff in quite the same way ever since. The judges were powerless to their melted hearts and delighted ears. In a state where everything had to be dictated by the head, Khrushchev himself gave consent for the first prize to be handed over to the American.
Time called him, "The Texan who conquered Russia."
When Cliburn returned to the states, he was awarded with a tickertape parade down Broadway in New York City. No American classical musician has been so lauded since.
Fast forward about fifty years.
CLEVELAND, 2016 --
The Cleveland International Piano Competition (CIPC) celebrates its forty-first year of existence. Out of thirty-two contestants from all around the world, the judges narrow their choice down to four finalists: two Russians, a Ukrainian, and an Italian.
For their final performances, each pianist takes a seat at a Steinway in the main concert hall at Severance Hall. Accompanied by the world-famous Cleveland Orchestra under the hypnotizing direction of guest conductor Bramwell Tovey, each finalist plays a piano concerto of their choice.
Russian Georgy Tchaidze, 28, and Ukrainian Dinara Klinton, 27, both offered their rendition of Tchaikovsky's famous Piano Concerto No. 1 -- the very same piece that won Cliburn his victory back in the day. The second Russian contestant, Nikita Mndoyants, 27, performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. The Italian contestant, Leonardo Colafelice -- just twenty years old -- stuck to a theme of Russian music, and played Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3.
No matter which way the prize would go, the competition surely proved itself to be international from the get-go of the final round. Even in the midst of a polarizing American election, a Ukrainian Klinton no less found herself in the States, playing the music of the most famous Russian composer in the world. It is the lesson that Van Cliburn taught us in 1958 -- culture is more powerful than politics.
It is the relentless work of people like Pierre van der Westhuizen, President and CEO of CIPC, that prove that. Since its inception, CIPC has expanded to be more inclusive than ever. It is no longer just a competition, but a festival -- a celebration. In addition to the competition that just took place, CIPC also hosts a competition for young artists ages 12-18. To reward dedication to musical heritage is to ensure the existence of a lasting cultural foundation -- this is what competitions like CIPC and the International Tchaikovsky Competition do.
When politics threaten to divide, it is culture that glues those cleavages back together. Issues arise when the two mix and the state attempts to control the culture. In 1958, Khrushchev's hold on the competition results ended up bridging a divide. In 2016, Vladimir Putin has been less successful. The Russian government's meddling in the Olympic Games -- another vital part of a state's culture -- has backfired badly. That, however, is a story for another day.
When Van Cliburn brought home his victory in 1958, it shook the world. It took a hammer to the Iron Curtain -- and while not completely shattering it, made enough of an impact to let some light show through. In the worst of times, music reminds of a universality that transcends politics and economics. This is the invaluable role that culture holds in society.
In 2016, the story is no different. While it was an American who won the Russian contest fifty years ago, now the roles have reversed. For his flawless technique and refined elegance, Nikita Mndoyants took home the gold. For his efforts, he is rewarded a prize of $75,000, a recital debut at Carnegie Hall, and a recording contract with Steinway & Sons.
Yet from where I was sitting, I have to admit that my heart was rooting for another. Leonardo Colafelice, who took second place, was not perfect. He was electric -- in a way that reminded of Cliburn himself; a mastery of the work so whole that it allows space for a personality to infiltrate. It is a rare pleasure for a non-Russian pianist to play the music with the heart of a culture they were not born into. This was the triumph of Van Cliburn, and for his efforts, Colafelice was given a similar recognition -- the Russian Award, granted to the one who gave the best performance of a Russian composition. He may not yet be the Italian who conquered Russia -- but at only twenty years old, he is certainly well on his way.
This is the magic of sound -- that when that last note is struck, thousands of people unify in a kindred reaction. They stand clapping, ovation after ovation, if only to begin to offer gratitude for the gift that they have been given. In those moments, it is not nationality they are thinking of. It is magic.