Pianist Van Cliburn dies

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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Van Cliburn, the internationally celebrated pianist whose triumph at a 1958 Moscow competition helped thaw the Cold War and launched a spectacular career that made him the rare classical musician to enjoy rock-star status, died Wednesday after a fight with bone cancer. He was 78.

Mr. Cliburn died at his home in Fort Worth surrounded by loved ones, said his publicist and longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone.

"Van Cliburn was an international legend for over five decades, a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy," Falcone said in a statement. "He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met."

Mr. Cliburn made what would be his last public appearance in September at the 50th anniversary of the prestigious piano competition named for him. Speaking to the audience in Fort Worth, he saluted the many past contestants, the orchestra and the city.

"Never forget: I love you all from the bottom of my heart, forever," he said to a roaring standing ovation.

Mr. Cliburn skyrocketed to fame when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at age 23 in 1958, six months after the Soviets' launch of Sputnik embarrassed the U.S. and propelled the world into the space age. He triumphantly returned to a New York City ticker tape parade -- the first ever for a classical musician -- and a Time magazine cover proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

"Winning the Tchaikovsky was very important to American pianists -- we didn't have to feel we were inferior to the Europeans," said David Allen Wehr, concert pianist and the Jack W. Geltz Distinguished Piano Chair at Duquesne University.

Christopher O'Riley, the Squirrel Hill native who hosts NPR's acclaimed classical program "From the Top," remembered a different kind of symbolism with Mr. Cliburn's winning the Tchaikovsky.

"There was just this wonderful boyish giant in the midst of the cold war winning this prize that people wanted to love," he said. "That was a big change from the old version of the venerable artist. There were other great pianists at the time, but you just wanted to root for him."

Seeing Mr. Cliburn in recital in a high school gymnasium in Boise, Idaho, was life-changing to Mr. Wehr, then a sixth-grade student.

"That is what inspired me to be a concert pianist," Mr. Wehr said. "Every American pianist of 1960 and 1970 would have taken their inspiration from him."

The Tchaikovsky win also proved the power of the arts, bringing unity in the midst of strong rivalry. Despite the tension between the nations, Mr. Cliburn became a hero to music-loving Soviets who clamored to see him perform and Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly gave the go-ahead for the judges to honor a foreigner: "Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize."

In the years that followed, Mr. Cliburn's popularity soared, and the young man from the small east Texas town of Kilgore sold out concerts, caused riots when spotted in public and even prompted an Elvis Presley fan club to change its name to his. His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin became the first classical album to reach platinum status.

Mr. Cliburn had a extended relationship with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra that began before his Moscow victory.

Music director William Steinberg conducted the pianist's Pittsburgh debut in January 1955. At the concert, at the Syria Mosque he soloed in what would be his signature piece, Tchaikovksy's Piano Concerto No. 1. He performed on six more subscription weekends, four benefit concerts, the last in May 19, 1973 at Heinz Hall, and was the soloist for a PSO appearance at Carnegie Hall in Nov. 5, 1971. In 1967 Duquesne University presented him with an honorary doctorate.

"The first time I heard him play was in March 1964, when he performed Brahms' Piano Concerto No 1 with the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg," said former Post-Gazette classical music critic Robert Croan.

"I still remember the singing line and variety of tonal color he brought to the slow movement. Later in his career, he lost some of the accuracy and spontaneity, but for me, no other pianist has ever quite matched him in that particular moment."

Conductor Leonard Slatkin worked with Mr. Cliburn several times, and will be the conductor of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition this spring.

"To me the gift of Cliburn was the sound he produced, it was almost as if he had an organ in-front of him instead of a piano," Mr. Slatikin said. "No-one ever played the opening chords of the Tchaikovsky First like him.

A remarkable vignette about Mr. Cliburn is related in "Play On," a history of the PSO published in 2011. Only a few months after the first International Tchaikovsky Competition and the ticker tape parade, Steinberg fined Mr. Cliburn $500 for arriving late to a rehearsal ahead of a PSO concert in November 1958.

Time magazine's 1958 cover story quoted a friend as saying Mr. Cliburn could become "the first man in history to be a Horowitz, Liberace and Presley all rolled into one."

Mr. Cliburn performed for royalty, heads of state in Europe, Asia and South America, and for every U.S. president since Harry Truman.

"Since we know that classical music is timeless and everlasting, it is precisely the eternal verities inherent in classical music that remain a spiritual beacon for people all over the world," Mr. Cliburn once said.

But Mr. Cliburn's character often made even more of an impression to musicians and fans.

"I went backstage to meet him," Mr. Wehr said of encountering Mr. Cliburn in Boise. "My dentist was there, and he joked that I had good teeth. Cliburn 'inspected' them and agreed. That's the kind of person he was. He cared about people as well as music. That is why he was so beloved. The generosity that characterized him as a person is what made him so irresistible in this romantic repertoire, people felt he was sincere."

Mr. Cliburn also befriended Fred and Joanne Rogers, both pianists. He appeared several times on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and even practiced in their house in Squirrel Hill. "He was a very dear person," said Mrs. Rogers. "When Fred was in the hospital and in the last days of his life, Van would call me every night in the hospital and try to get me to laugh at something."

He also used his skill and fame to help other young musicians through the Van Cliburn International Music Competition.

Created by a group of Fort Worth teachers and citizens in 1962, the competition, held every four years, remains a pre-eminent showcase for the world's top pianists. An amateur contest was added in 1999.

"It is a forum for young artists to celebrate the great works of the piano literature and an opportunity to expose their talents to a wide-ranging international audience," Mr. Cliburn said during the 10th competition in 1997.

The 14th competition is to be held in May and June.

President George W. Bush presented Mr. Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation's highest civilian honor -- in 2003.

In 2004, he received the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I still have lots of friends in Russia," Mr. Cliburn said at the time. "It's always a great pleasure to talk to older people in Russia, to hear their anecdotes."

After the death of his father in 1974, Mr. Cliburn announced he would soon retire to spend more time with his ailing mother. He stopped touring in 1978.

He told The New York Times in 2008 that among other things, touring robbed him of the chance to enjoy opera and other musical performances. "I said to myself, `Life is too short.' I was missing so much," he said. After winning the competition, he added, "it was thrilling to be wanted. But it was pressure too."

"It is sad to hear of the passing of one of our most gifted pianists and it is unfortunate that he never had the chance to fulfill all his talents," said Byron Janis, renowned pianist born in McKeesport.

Mr. Cliburn emerged from his sabbatical in 1987, when he played at a state dinner at the White House during the historic visit to Washington of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev leapt from his seat to give the pianist a bear-hug and kisses on the cheeks.

The 13th Cliburn competition, held in 2009, made history when a blind pianist from Japan, Nobuyuki Tsujii, and a teenager from China, Haochen Zhang, both won gold medals. They were the first winners from any Asian country, and Tsujii was the first blind pianist to win. And it was only the second time there were dual first place winners.

Mr. Cliburn was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La., the son of oilman Harvey Cliburn Sr. and Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn. At age 3, he began studying piano with his mother, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with a pupil of the great 19th century Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt.

The family moved back to Kilgore, Texas, within a few years of his birth.

Mr. Cliburn won his first Texas competition when he was 12, and two years later he played in Carnegie Hall as the winner of the National Music Festival Award.

At 17, Mr. Cliburn attended the Juilliard School in New York, where fellow students marveled at his marathon practice sessions that stretched until 3 a.m. He studied under the famed Russian-born pianist Rosina Lhevinne.

Between 1952 and 1958, he won all but one competition he entered, including the G.B. Dealey Award from the Dallas Symphony, the Kosciusko Foundation Chopin Scholarship and the prestigious Leventritt. By age 20, he had played with the New York Philharmonic and the symphonies of most major cities.

Mr. Cliburn's career seemed ready to take off until his name came up for the draft. Mr. Cliburn had to cancel all shows but was eventually excused from duty due to chronic nosebleeds.

Over the next few years, Mr. Cliburn's international popularity continued as he recorded pieces ranging from Mozart to a concerto by American Edward McDowell. Still, having been trained by arguably the best Russian teachers in the world, Mr. Cliburn's heart was Russian, with the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos.

After 1990, Mr. Cliburn toured Japan numerous times and performed throughout the United States. He was in the midst of a 16-city U.S. tour in 1994 when his mother died at age 97.

Mr. Cliburn made his home in Fort Worth, where in 1998 he appeared at the opening of the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, both in recital and as soloist with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. He endowed scholarships at many schools, including Juilliard, which gave him an honorary doctorate, and the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories.

In December 2001, Mr. Cliburn was presented with the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors Medallion at the televised tribute held in Washington.

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Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod contributed. First Published February 27, 2013 5:45 AM


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