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Remembering Van Cliburn, A Giant Among Pianists And A Cold War Idol

A youthful Van Cliburn, captured mid-concerto.
Courtesy of the Van Cliburn Foundation
A youthful Van Cliburn, captured mid-concerto.

Legendary pianist Van Cliburn, the only solo musician of any genre to receive a ticker-tape parade in New York City and the first classical musician to sell a million albums, died Wednesday morning in his Fort Worth, Texas, home. The 78-year-old Texan soared to world fame in 1958 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War.

Tall, slim Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn Jr. was 23 years old, just a few years out of New York's famed Juilliard School when the first Tchaikovsky piano competition beckoned from Moscow. Here was a chance to further his career and visit a far-off place the Texan had dreamed of since he was 5.

"I saw this photograph of the Church of St. Basil. It was just breathtaking. I said, 'Mommy, Daddy, take me there,' " Van Cliburn recalled in an interview recorded in his Fort Worth home in 2008. "And of course I had heard famous stories about the Moscow Conservatory, that just legendary place, and the St. Petersburg Conservatory. And to play on that stage where so many great, famous people had performed was just breathtaking."

In April 1958, Cliburn became one of those famed musicians. His performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto was a stunner.

Stuart Isacoff is a music journalist, pianist and composer. He says the tension of the times helped seal Cliburn's status as an icon. "He played like an immortal, he played like a legend," Isacoff says. "He seemed to show them [the Russians] more of who they were than their own players were demonstrating."

"In some ways," Isacoff continues, "there was a perfect cultural storm taking place at that event, because it was the middle of the Cold War, the Russians had launched Sputnik, people like me were diving under desks at school in case the Russians dropped the atomic bomb on us."

Cliburn was dubbed the "American Sputnik." That November, in the midst of an international concert tour, he came back to Fort Worth for a dinner honoring his mother, a music teacher. One of the speakers had a surprise.

Cliburn recalled those words: "Ladies and gentlemen, I have a check here for $10,000. And I wish for it to be first prize of a competition, an international piano competition. I want it to be named for my good friend, Rildia Bee Cliburn's little boy, Van."

A foundation was established, and the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was held in 1962. But Cliburn shrugged off all the attention, saying he was just a musical servant. Richard Rodzinski says the pianist took the word seriously. Rodzinski oversaw the Cliburn Competition for more than 20 years. He's now general director of the Tchaikovsky Competition.

" 'Serving' is a big word in his vocabulary," says Rodzinski. "He refers to presidents of the United States who serve a term, a queen who will serve her people. He feels he is serving the purpose of being able to bring beautiful music as he sees it, from his garden to an audience."

Cliburn's recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 went platinum. That was the first million-selling classical album in chart history.

"He gets the sound out of a piano that sings like nobody I've ever heard," says John Giordano, who has been Cliburn's friend since 1973. For decades, Giordano conducted the Fort Worth Symphony, and he has been involved in nearly every Cliburn Competition.

"Opera is his favorite medium," Giordano says. "So he emulates the voice and is cognizant of the way a singer would play a particular phrase — which ends up, whether people realize it or not, reaching into their hearts."

That includes the heart of Russian pianist Olga Kern, who won the Cliburn Competition in 2001. Her musician parents heard and loved Cliburn in 1958 and played his recordings at home.

"I grew up on it," Kern says, "and absolutely loved it. I loved how he transformed that music to a different level. He opened for Russian musicians how this Russian music can sound completely different: more melodic, more softer, more dramatic. It sounded so new and so fresh. It was incredible."

The reverence for Van Cliburn among the Russian people persists. In 2011, for the first time since his 1958 victory, Cliburn returned to the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow as an honorary judge. He was mobbed on the street.

Yet Cliburn was not without critics. In the late 1970s, the pianist withdrew from the public stage. Some blamed burnout; others said he had lost his touch. Pianist Yoheved "Veda" Kaplinsky, who teaches at Juilliard and has served as a Cliburn Competition judge, has a different answer.

"He's a perfectionist," Kaplinsky says. "Which is why he eventually left the concert scene. He was never satisfied with what he could do. He always wanted to do more."

Cliburn did more behind the scenes. He endowed scholarships at various music schools. He funded some of the Cliburn Competition scholarships. But he still may be best remembered for his 1958 victory in Moscow. Four years ago, he recalled riding through New York City surrounded by cheering fans: "As I was waving to them, I was thinking, 'Isn't this wonderful. Not for me, they're honoring classical music.' I was only an instrument."

Those closest to him say that modesty was the real thing. Before arriving in Moscow two years ago, he asked friends, in all sincerity, "Do you really think they'll remember me?"

Copyright 2013 KERA

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues. Heâââ