FORT WORTH, Texas – For a time in Cold War America, Van Cliburn had all the trappings of a rock star: sold-out concerts, adoring, out-of-control fans and a name recognized worldwide.
And he did it all with only a piano and some Tchaikovsky concertos.
The celebrated pianist played for every American president since Harry Truman, plus royalty and heads of state around the world. But he is best remembered for winning a 1958 piano competition in Moscow that helped thaw the icy rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Cliburn, who died Wednesday at 78 after fighting bone cancer, was “a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy,” said his publicist and longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone.
The young man from the small east Texas town of Kilgore was a baby-faced 23-year-old when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow just six months after the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik embarrassed the U.S. and inaugurated the space race. He returned to a hero’s welcome and the ticker-tape parade – the first ever for a classical musician.
The win also showed the power of the arts, creating unity despite the tension between the superpowers. Music-loving Soviets clamored to see him perform. 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, Cliburn’s popularity soared. He sold out concerts and caused riots when he was spotted in public. His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin became the first classical album to reach platinum status.
He also used his skill and fame to help other young musicians through the Van Cliburn International Music Competition. Held every four years, it remains among the top showcases for the world’s best pianists.
President George W. Bush presented Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor – in 2003.