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.