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USC pianist reflects on his past with Van Cliburn

Daniel Pollack performs at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 under a portrait of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Thornton School of Music)

In 1958, six months after the Soviet Union had launched its first Sputnik satellite, Van Cliburn traveled to Moscow for the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. The 23-year-old Texan’s victory launched the “American Sputnik,” as he was called, into an international career as a celebrated soloist.

Cliburn wasn’t the only American to win an award in Moscow. Daniel Pollack, a 23-year-old pianist from Los Angeles, also emerged as a prize winner at the competition.

“There were four Americans in the competition,” said Pollack, professor of keyboard studies at the USC Thornton School of Music. “Van, myself, Norman Shetler and Jerry Lowenthal — only Van and I survived into the final round.”

Both had studied at the Juilliard School with the legendary teacher Rosina Lhévinne. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, Lhévinne was the wife of pianist Josef Lhévinne, who had worked with Russian Vasily Safonov. Thanks to the elite lineage of their teachers, Pollack was accustomed to sharing a stage with Cliburn during high-pressure performances.

“We both attended Madame Lhévinne’s master classes at Juilliard, and it was like sitting in Carnegie Hall because everyone was superb,” Pollack said. “Van would always come in late and bring her something — a box of chocolates, flowers — and excuse himself. After that, I didn’t see him again until Moscow.”

While Pollack was studying in Vienna on a Fulbright Fellowship, a professor brought him a brochure for the Tchaikovsky Competition. It was in German, and since Pollack could not read it, his professor summarized the requirements and read them to him. Pollack, who had two months to prepare, worked feverishly to learn the repertoire.

“At dinner on the night I arrived, one of the contestants asked me what I was playing, and I said Myaskovsky and Medtner and Shostakovich. He asked me why I was doing all of the Soviet pieces. I thought that’s what was required, and he told me, no, you only had to prepare one of them. I quickly realized that I had prepared the wrong repertoire for the competition,” he recalled.

Pollack promptly offered to withdraw but fearing an international incident, the organizers held an emergency meeting led by Dimitri Shostakovich.

“Initially, they thought it had been a political move — an American coming to Russia with only music by Soviet composers,” he said. “You can imagine my feeling. I was horrified.”

The competition’s jury agreed to allow Pollack to compete with the wrong repertoire he had prepared. When both Cliburn and Pollack reached the final round, pianist Sviatoslav Richter proclaimed that it had become a competition between the two Americans.

Cliburn’s historic victory ensued, but while he returned to a ticker-tape parade in New York and a meeting with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Pollack remained in the Soviet Union for almost two months, recording two albums and performing across Russia and Ukraine on a tour organized by the Soviet government.

“I performed in the Ukraine because Americans were not allowed to go East,” Pollack said. “In the competition, each contestant was asked to perform a piece from their native country, and I played the Barber Sonata, which Van also played, but not the complete work, only the last movement, the fugue. As such, I guess, my performance of the work was a premiere. Hence, the recording afterwards.”

That initial run of performances has been followed over the years by what is now approaching 20 tours in Russia, and the bond between the pianist and the Russian public has grown.

Pollack traveled to St. Petersburg in 2008 to perform at the 50th anniversary of the Tchaikovsky Competition, and he continues to feel its influence.

“The competition was broadcast and televised through the entire Soviet Union and its sphere of countries: all of Eastern Europe and China,” Pollack said. “Even today, people recognize me across the world who heard the performances.”

The lasting influence of Pollack’s teacher continues as well. From 1971 to 1974, Rosina Lhévinne taught a piano master class at USC, with Pollack as her assistant. Subsequently, he was recruited to join the USC faculty.

“I was very fortunate early on in my associations with USC Thornton to have the chance to perform the Tchaikovsky ‘Trio’ [in 1972] with both Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky when both were USC faculty,” he said. “Both of these great artists were, of course, Russian. I value very much that Slavic tradition. It has been a big influence in my own teaching and my performances. I, like Van, had the fortune to be a part of that legacy.”

Pollack is still coming to terms with Cliburn’s death.

“It’s hard for me to talk about it because it brings back so many memories, and it’s a great loss for us in the world of music,” he said. “Van had an enormous career. He had a very engaging personality. He was the kind of person who took over the room when he was around with his entourage.

“I remember one time in Hartford, we made plans to have dinner together, and there were 20 people there. That was typical. He invited everyone into his world. He had a warm personality, and his performances reflected that.”

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