Tchaikovsky: Concerto #1 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 23, Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn in Moscow

Ansel Head’s mother never minced her words about communists, the Soviet Union, and their bellicose threats against her country. It may explain why she admired Van Cliburn and always kept his recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the record stack on the player at Lake Martin.

Her eclectic selections, which also included Doris Day and “My Fair Lady”, contained five or six well worn, scratchy 33 1/3 long playing vinyl records. Before her five o’clock gin and tonic, she would turn on the phonograph, allow a minute for the vacuum tubes to warm up, raise the stack to the top of the spindle, then rotate the spring loaded switch to the start position. The arm, rising from its pedestal, would swing into the stack to gage the size of the records, then move back. The bottom record would fall to the rotating turn table, the arm would swing inward below the remaining discs on the spindle to a point above the start of the record, then drop slowly onto it; following the record’s groves, the diamond needle would vibrate to the recorded creases and caverns; that vibration, amplified through the vacuum tubes, was Phonographthen converted to magnetic impulses in the speaker. Out would come the music along with the sound of scratches and debris lodged in the grooves and on the needle. When the needle reached the end of the record, it would raise and swing out of the way, then the process would repeat itself. The player would automatically shut off when the last record finished. Someone had to then pickup the stack, turn them over, put them back on the spindle, and re-start the player.

There were dozens of albums in the cabinet below the player, but Head cannot recall anyone every changing the five or six records that were always on the spindle. That meant that Van Cliburn was part of the nightly repertoire at the Lake Martin cabin.

If that record happened to play during her second gin and tonic, his mother would invariably instruct her children on its significance.

The Russian Dictator, Khrushchev

Khrushchev says he’s going to bury America,” she lectured. “He thinks the Russians are better than us, especially their musicians. Then along comes this nice boy from Texas. The Communist let him into the piano contest in Moscow just to show the world how superior their government trained players were. Van Cliburn showed them all right. The crowd went wild when he played this Russian classic. Khrushchev had to let the judges give him first prize. Bury us, hah!”

The children knew the picture on the album of the young American sitting at the piano, all alone in Moscow in the heart of the enemy. On hearing him play the dramatic and stirring introduction in the first movement, the children could feel the power of this everyday American storming into the arena and laying waste to the evil dictator.

“We will not be buried by this little, gloomy, fat baldheaded man,” the children said to each other. There was comfort in the fact that the Russians who heard Van Cliburn play must have been thinking the same.

Apparently many other people also felt the same since it became the first classical album to become a gold record.

This entry was posted in Ansel Head's Education, Head's Music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Tchaikovsky: Concerto #1 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 23, Van Cliburn

  1. Ansel's younger sister says:

    As a teen, Ansel’s younger sister was a tall, skinny, poorly postured piece of work that her Mom thought could be molded into a stunning young lady of society. Three years of careful instruction from the top models in the community was invested in that effort.
    About the time her training was complete, the now defunct department store located in downtown Birmingham had a marketing idea called the Pizitz Teen Board. The Teen Board selected teenaged girls from the area high schools to serve as marketing representatives designed to reach that population. As a now highly instructed tall skinny better postured teen, Ansel’s sister was selected for membership. The job was to model different outfits during promotional events held by the store and star in store commercials ( she is still in therapy after dancing “The Jerk” on one commercial). In addition, she was to attend civic events,interview professionals and write for the local paper. The compensation: 10% discount on anything modeled (these guys were no fools).

    Here’s where Van Cliburn comes in…at the monthly meetings, the potential interviewees would be announced. It was an exciting time for the teens. They would sit in hopeful anticipation of being the Chosen One. Celebrities interviewed included Gladys Knight, the Drifters, local radio personalities Layton and Charles, Mary Wells, Roy Orbison and Little Eva, just to name a few. At one such meeting Van Cliburn’s name was announced. Ansel’s sister jumped up praying to be the one selected to meet and interview this god. She won! She got the assignment! As she sat down, she looked around in wonderment. No one else had even raised her hand. Ansel’s sister was stunned that no one on this select board of teenage girls knew who this savior was. Always quick to figure these things out, she came to the obvious conclusion that their moms didn’t drink gin and tonics and listen to the record player.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *