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TED TALLEY: Tickled ivory memories

Van Cliburn’s aren’t the most cherished fingers to play this piano by Ted Talley | June 10, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

I recently made a trip to the Louisiana hometown to retrieve my late mother's piano. Neither of my sisters had need for it. Today this striking upright Steinway is in a new place of honor in my Arkansas home. And Bentonville becomes home to not one but two pianos once played by the late, renowned pianist Van Cliburn.

That other Steinway in Bentonville is the magnificent concert grand chosen from Cliburn's private collection and donated to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2016 by his long-time partner Thomas Smith.

So what does Mother's instrument have in common with the famous pianist? All Southern families have stories to share; this one begins last century in the midst of the Cold War.

In April 1958 young Van Cliburn gained instant celebrity when he won the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. He confounded the politburo -- a Russian was supposed to win. Returning to a New York ticker tape parade and a Time magazine cover declaring him the Texan who conquered Russia, Cliburn was nabbed by his birth state's largest orchestra, the New Orleans Philharmonic, for a concert that November.

We didn't attend the concert. But the next April my parents decided we needed a new piano. They loaded us into our two-toned Mercury with the push-button transmission and drove across Lake Pontchartrain to Werlein's, the venerable music store on New Orleans' famed Canal Street. We were welcomed warmly as extended family had done business there for generations. The showroom overlooking the thoroughfare was filled with Steinways the size of cars with hoods raised but no tailfins. Mother had similar impressions. After playing a few, she declared, "These are just too big for our living room."

"I have just the piano," the salesman said.

He ushered us into a small practice room containing an upright Steinway. With a dark walnut stain and fluted wooden support columns topped with pineapple-like finials, it was unique.

My older sister Carolyn played first. Mother followed with a church offertory excerpt. She lifted hands from the keys and cast her vote: "This piano has a beautiful tone."

The salesman responded, "Then, Mrs. Talley, you agree with Van Cliburn."

Cliburn had rehearsed in the very room on the same piano as the concert grand was moved from the store to the Municipal Auditorium for his performance. He commented on its qualities to store personnel.

Two years later and with a fine piano to offer, Mother volunteered to host my sister's piano teacher and her annual recital in our living room. One of several other students to perform was Mary Pratt Percy, eldest daughter of noted novelist and essayist Walker Percy. The Percys were acquaintances from a few blocks away.

As the day of the recital neared, Mother was nervous that this famous writer would be visiting her home. Daddy paid no mind. In his view, "Dr. Percy," as locals called him, would be just another father coming to hear a child play, same as Mr. Brunning, the electrical contractor, or Mr. Kohnke, our druggist.

Warehouse men recruited from our family's feed store relocated the living room furniture; a grain delivery truck was dispatched to borrow folding chairs from our church. The venue was set. But late that night Daddy, struck with awful gastric distress, was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. An appendectomy ensued.

As the cars of recital families filled our narrow street the next afternoon, neighbors who knew of the medical emergency became alarmed that Daddy had died and First Baptist folk were arriving with condolences. One lady down the street rang the doorbell offering to organize funeral day food.

Nevertheless, the recital was a success, followed with cake and punch in the dining room and a write-up in the society section of the local weekly. Daddy would read about it when he had recovered.

I also took lessons a year or so and endured one recital, but quit in favor of the trumpet and marching band. Thanks to Mother's meticulous cataloging, I have a few pieces of "boy" piano sheet music from those days. Maybe I'll begin lessons anew and start from where I left off with "Cub Scout Parade" and "Wagon Trails."

As I play again, I might channel inspiration from fingers pressed upon these classic ivories decades ago. Yet I reference not those of Van Cliburn, celebrated concert artist of Fort Worth, Texas. Rather, I'll recall the graceful hands of Evelyn Simpson Talley, feed mill matriarch and accomplished church musician of Covington, Louisiana.

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