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Mar. 14 2013

Remembering two great pianists

By Judith Krummeck | Posted in Host Blogs | 6 Comments

Even before I came to live in the states and witnessed first hand the iconic status of the late, great pianist, Van Cliburn, we felt we had a connection to him in South Africa. The late Steven de Groote, a great pianist in his own right, won the Van Cliburn competition in 1977, and with that we all became fascinated by the story of the man who gave his name to the contest, who had been given a ticker-tape parade in New York after he had won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the cold war.

Not only did Steven win the Grand Prize at the Van Cliburn competition, he was also awarded prizes for the best performance of a commissioned work, as well as best performance of chamber music – the only winner in the history of the competition of have taken all prizes. Steven’s affinity for chamber music came from being part of a musical dynasty, and he had grown up playing chamber music with his family members. He was born in Johannesburg but his family was originally from Belgium, where his grandmother had been a recipient of the Prix de Rome. His father was a violinist and conductor, his oldest brother is a music professor in Belgium, his second brother, Olivier, was the principal clarinetist in the Cape Town Symphony, and his third brother, Philip, is the ‘cellist in the Chillingirian Quartet.

After his initial studies in Cape Town and Brussels, Steven came to the States to study at the Curtis Institute with Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horsozowski and Seymour Lipkin. After the Van Cliburn competition launched his career, he toured all over the world playing chamber music, recitals and concerts, including with the Baltimore Symphony and David Zinman. In the 1980s he began to divide his time between teaching and performance, and in 1987 he succeeded Lili Kraus as artist-in-residence at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

For obvious reasons, I have been thinking a lot about Steven since we heard of the death of Van Cliburn last month. Steven’s own life was cut tragically short. He had been an amateur pilot, and he suffered a crippling injury when he crashed on landing at Phoenix. Following a series of surgeries, he made a miraculous recovery, but in the process had been given tainted blood in a transfusion, and he died in South Africa in 1989 from complications related to AIDS. He was 36. On February 12th this year, he would have celebrated his 60th birthday.

Van Cliburn and Steven de Groote: two wonderful pianists who will forever be linked in my memory.

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Judith Krummeck

About

Judith is WBJC's afternoon host. Her full bio can be read here.

6 Responses to Remembering two great pianists

  • Robert J. Randall says:

    Judith, please forgive this non sequitur comment, but listening to your lovely voice and precise speech is a source of great pleasure to my wife and to me. We of course enjoy all of the BJC family, but you stand out as a source of enjoyment for us.

    • Judith Krummeck says:

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment. It is wonderful to know that you and your wife are listening to WBJC.

  • Kati Harrison
    Kati Harrison says:

    Having spent some of my formative years in Texas, I always associated Van Cliburn with that State. Even though we Texans knew that it was a big deal that he had won the first Tchaikovksy Compitition, the Lousiana born Cliburn was “our” Texas Music Ambassador. I was lucky enough to sit in an interview with Mr. Cliburn and see him perform with the Corpus Christi Symphony in the mid 90′s. He was a soft-spoken gentleman, and someone to make you proud to be a Texan. It is good to be reminded that Van Cliburn’s reach stretched far beyond The Lone Star State.

    • Judith Krummeck
      Judith Krummeck says:

      What a privilege for you, Kati, to be in the presence of Van Cliburn. The way you describe him so exactly matches his courteous and refined music-making. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Douglas Blackstone says:

    Now for my Van Cliburn story – In 1970 or so there was a summer music festival north of Philadelphia called the “Ambler Music Festival”. I had a job as the festival “Driver”, and I chauffeured around the artists – one being Van Cliburn. Ambler was “out in the country”, so most of the artists stayed at a local motel, but Van C. always stayed at the gracious “Bellevue-Stratford” hotel in central Philadelphia. On concert night, he didn’t want to be there even one minute early (no warmup for him), and he had no idea how far we had to drive, so he was late, and I had to drive like crazy to get him there in time. He literally opened the car door and walked onto the stage, sat down, and played the Tchaikowsky concerto without batting an eye. -DB

    PS – I also knew Steven de Groote very well, having played many years in South African orchetras. He was a true gentleman and a consumate artist. His early death was a great loss, right up there with Hungarian conductor, István Kertész. -DB

    • Judith Krummeck
      Judith Krummeck says:

      Your Van Cliburn story made me think that, with his having won the Tchaikovsky Competition, that piano concerto was probably in his blood, and he could almost have played it in his sleep! :-)

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