Polishing Chinese Press Releases in English

Chris O'Brien, a UK native, just finished two years in Beijing massaging the English press releases from Xinhua, the official Chinese press agency. O' Brien has been a self-described propagandist for the Chinese government, making official old-line Marxist newspeak sound like familiar English in the West.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In the 1950s, there was a big-haired kid from the South who shook up the world with the way he played music.

(Soundbite of music)

Of course, we mean Van Cliburn. He was a lanky and laconic 23-year-old from Texas when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, April, 1958.

It was at the height of the Cold War, and rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union over Berlin, nuclear tests and the space race. The judges at the competition reportedly asked Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev if they could really give first place to an American. Khrushchev said: Is he the best piano player? Then give it to him.

Van Cliburn came home to a ticker-tape parade in New York and international celebrity. His recording of Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto was the first classical recording to sell more than a million copies.

So who better to speak with us on the 50th anniversary of that famous competition than Van Cliburn who joins us from his home outside Fort Worth, Texas?

My Cliburn, what an honor to have you.

Mr. VAN CLIBURN (Pianist): Well, what an honor that you want me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, what rushes through your mind when you think about that competition? What are some of the memories?

Mr. CLIBURN: I remember so well the evening I arrived on March 26th, 1958, and one of the landmarks of the world that I had treasured the memory of seeing, when I was 5 years old in a child's picture-history book of the world, was the gorgeous photograph of the church of St. Basil. And so I asked this very nice lady from the ministry of culture: Is it possible to pass by and see the church? She said: Of course. And so we drove past it and Red Square and the Kremlin. It was so beautiful, I cannot begin to tell you.

The weather was, of course, cold and snow, but it lent so much to the atmosphere, and then two days later to go at night to practice at the great Bolshoi Hall of the conservatory, which for all musicians and composers is a hallowed ground…

SIMON: What was it like to play there?

Mr. CLIBURN: Oh, so many of the famous composers and instrumentalists, pianists, violin - all have played there, and it's just a remarkable place.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: What do you remember of the audience reaction?

Mr. CLIBURN: The audiences are fantastic. To know that these people knew all of this music and for them to be interested in hearing what I had to say about the compositions, that's a thrill.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You got the nickname Vanya?

Mr. CLIBURN: Vanya, Vanishka(ph), all great, very affectionate names. I loved it.

SIMON: Did you grow up with a special affinity for Russian music, do you think?

Mr. CLIBURN: Yes, I love it. It's very - it's (unintelligible). It's very emotional. It's very wonderful, but as someone very rightly put it, you have to be even more discerning and distinct if you're playing romantic music because the romanticism is written in to the music. You cannot be self-indulgent. You must be expressive and interpretive.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Can I get you to talk about your mother?

Mr. CLIBURN: Yes, oh, my mother was a wonderful pianist, and so my mother had studied with Arthur Friedheim who was a pupil of Liszt, and the wonderful, inspiring information that she has been teaching me from the age of 3 was terribly important. And when I went to Russia, I felt like I had been rewarded for 20 years of work.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You invited your mother on-stage during one of your performances in the Soviet Union, didn't you?

Mr. CLIBURN: In Moscow, yes I surely did, and she played, and it was so (unintelligible) and wonderful, and they were so sweet to her always.

SIMON: Now, I've read somewhere that she made you sing a piece before she let you…

Mr. CLIBURN: Yes, that was terribly important because she had a very beautiful voice. At the same time she was in New York studying with Arthur Friedheim, she was a voice student of Ralph Leach Sterner(ph), and he was a very important voice teacher, and he chided her one day that he wished that she didn't play the piano so well because she would give more time to her voice.

But she gave me the realization that the human voice is the first instrument, and that is only one component of music, melody. If you want harmony, you have to have two or three or four more voices, and then rhythm being the third part: Melody, harmony and rhythm - that is inherent in whatever you want to say because it gives a structure to the musical conversation.

You see, the piano is the lowest form of instrument, but it is a complete instrument.

SIMON: It's been good to you.

Mr. CLIBURN: It doesn't stand alone, but it is a percussion instrument. It must be made a lyrical instrument, and that's the difficulty of playing the piano.

SIMON: And that's what the pedal does, though, because it can project it.

Mr. CLIBURN: The pedal is the soul of the piano because it will sustain the sound, but the judicious use of the pedal, and it's very difficult.

SIMON: Do you still sing before you tackle a piece?

Mr. CLIBURN: Oh, I love opera, so I'm singing to myself most of the time, and when you sing at the piano, it also has to do with your breathing because then you will know how to breathe into a line of thematic material.

SIMON: So you will sit at a piano and sing this - I'm just…

Mr. CLIBURN: Not simultaneously, but to yourself. You are singing. You are putting into a context of a human voice because when we go to play on a stage before an audience, we are there as a voice. It may the piano, but it's still a voice.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Do you remember the first time you ever played the piano?

Mr. CLIBURN: Well, the first time was my mother had been teaching a child, and he lived around the corner, and I was three, and I was rather quiet child, and I had been listening to the lesson, and my mother said goodbye to him, and I went to the piano and was imitating his piece. And she thought it was he had come back, and she was calling his name. And she found me at the piano, and she said do you want to play the piano? And I said yes, mother. She said, well I'll teach you. You're not going to play by ear. So from that moment on, she started teaching me.

SIMON: I have also heard that you have such an extraordinary wingspan, if you please, that you had a high-school basketball coach who tried to recruit you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CLIBURN: Well, my father was - I had just made my debut with the Houston Symphony, when I was 12, and because he himself played the clarinet and the saxophone, he said why don't you play the clarinet in the high-school marching band?

SIMON: What high school?

Mr. CLIBURN: Kilgore High School.

SIMON: Okay.

Mr. CLIBURN: I was born in Shreveport, and then my father was an executive with Magnolia Petroleum, and so they were building the offices for the East Texas field when I came along, and then we moved when I was 6 to Kilgore, and I went through public schools there and graduated from Kilgore High School.

SIMON: So there you are in the high school marching band.

Mr. CLIBURN: Yes.

SIMON: And did the coach see you and say wow, what a…?

Mr. CLIBURN: Oh, they teased me because I had big hands, and they would've been happy, they said, to have had me on the basketball team.

SIMON: You kind of went into a semi-retirement in the late '70s. Did you at some point get tired of touring?

Mr. CLIBURN: Well no, one never tires of the playing for audiences. I think sometimes you with you could say presto and be in the place and not have to go through the motions of getting there. I think it was probably that my great love is opera, and when I saw my first opera, I was 4 years old.

It was "Carmen." And this lady, who was the chorus mistress, had called my mother and said maybe little Van would like to go to the rehearsal, because he'll be too tired to go to the performances. And they had scheduled three performances in Shreveport.

I went to the rehearsal. I went to all three of the performances, and I said this is what I'm living for.

SIMON: You were 4 years old?

Mr. CLIBURN: Four years old, and I remember it vividly, but the main thing, I had so many friends who were also opera devotees, and they would call me and say oh, Van, oh I wish you had been here. You had to play a recital last night in Minneapolis. Oh, it was the most fantastic "Salome" by (unintelligible) you ever saw in your life.

Oh, and I would get so envious that they were there and I had not been.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You never wanted to be a singer, or…

Mr. CLIBURN: I wanted to be a singer, yes. I had a three-year career as a boy soprano from 8 to 11, and I enjoyed that so much, and my mother, having studied voice, gave me lessons in (unintelligible), and it was so nice.

And then the Christmas before I turned 12 in July, my voice was a little more difficult to reach the high notes, because it had been so very easy before then, and then I made my debut with the Houston Symphony, and then my father came to me, because I kept saying to them I want to be a baritone opera singer. And they said you know, I think it may be better that you stick to something you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, it's not too late.

Mr. CLIBURN: They were wise. I'm sure, as I said to Thomas Hampson(ph) and Cheryl Milnes(ph) the other night in New York, when I hear them sing, I know that I was wise to have stuck to something I know.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: May I ask, do you play the piano every day?

Mr. CLIBURN: Yes.

SIMON: Serious practice, or just for fun?

Mr. CLIBURN: Yes, sometimes. It depends upon the inspiration, and of course, I love to play at night. And you feel like you're alone, and the world's asleep, and it's very inspiring.

SIMON: So you play alone, it sounds like?

Mr. CLIBURN: Yes.

SIMON: Nobody there to hear Van Cliburn.

Mr. CLIBURN: No, thank goodness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CLIBURN: I've always laughed and said that, you know, when you practice the piano and when you play a concert, it is totally different because when you practice, it's like washing and cleaning and scrubbing, and it's very, very hard work, and the more you work, sometimes it's - you see how much more work you have to do, and that can be discouraging. So then the next day, you try not to be discouraged because you know that as Rachmaninov said once, he was also so aware of his inadequacies, and if he ever was able to practice enough to make himself play the way he would want to, he would probably drop dead the next day.

So I think that's how you always feel. He also had another saying that I love so much, that the horizon is always receding in art, and that is so true. He also said that music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.

SIMON: Do you ever learn new pieces?

Mr. CLIBURN: Yes, I will work on things in certain works that you love and that you will look back, and you'll say well, maybe I'll program that.

SIMON: Do you listen to much music today? I know you listen to opera.

Mr. CLIBURN: Yes, oh yes. I've had good friends over the years, (unintelligible) and Maria Callas, and I listen to how they feel about music and the stage and what all it entails. And I remember once, Maria said only 50 percent of you can be on the stage because 50 percent of you has to be in the audience, which is very true because you're there as a servant.

You have to make it clear what you're trying to say as a performer so that the person in the last seat in the balcony can very well understand what you're trying to say. You may not always succeed, but at least that's your motivation. Mine is.

SIMON: Do you ever miss playing for an audience?

Mr. CLIBURN: No, I was never really the kind of person that needed the stage. I love music; I love listening to it. When you listen to music, you can be 100 percent. When you're having to serve music, you must be thinking of others, not yourself.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Mr. Cliburn, it's been such an honor to talk to you.

Mr. CLIBURN: Oh, it's been such a pleasure to talk to you, Mr. Simon, and I'm so happy that we've gotten to have this visit.

SIMON: Van Cliburn, speaking to us from Fort Worth.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you can hear Van Cliburn play Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto and see video clips of his performance in Moscow at our Web site, npr.org/music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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