Iconic pianist Van Cliburn dies at 78

Van Cliburn, whose legacy as a 20th century classical pianist is matched only by such figures Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould, died at age 78 in his home in Fort Worth, Texas on Wednesday. Cause of death was bone cancer, a condition revealed by his publicist in August.

The Shreveport, Louisiana native, whose thick mane of wavy blonde hair and leading-man looks made him a figure straight out of Central Casting, achieved worldwide recognition in 1958 at age 23 when he won the gold medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, an event meant to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority. The triumph was hailed as the first significant thaw of the Cold War and led to a ticker-tape parade in New York and the cover of Time magazine, which proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”

“Van was a treasured member of the Fort Worth community who belonged to the world,” said Carla Kemp Thompson, chair of the Van Cliburn Foundation, in a statement. “His legacy is one of being a great humanitarian, a great musician, a great colleague and a great friend to all who knew and loved him. Van is iconic, and we at the Van Cliburn Foundation join the international community in mourning the loss of a true giant.”

Cliburn, a two-time Grammy winner and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, was described in a statement by Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow as “an ambassador for the arts” who transcended “cultural barriers and politics through the power of his music. His legacy will continue to have a great impact not only on classical music, but on our culture as well.”

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, begun in 1962 and held every four years, is considered the benchmark for emerging classical pianists. The fourteenth edition was held May 24 -June 9 at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall.

Cliburn was born as Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn, Jr. He began piano lessons at age 3 with his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, a student of Arthur Friedheim, who studied under Franz Liszt. At age 12, Cliburn made his debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. After graduating from Kilgore High School in the spring of 1951, we went on to study with Madame Rosina Lhevinne at Juilliard in New York City.

Barely in his 20s, Cliburn experienced a pivotal year in 1954 when he won the Levintritt Competition, a highly prestigious international showcase for classical pianists and violinists, and subsequently appeared with major orchestras in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. He capped off the year with his Nov. 14 debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, which many years later would request that Cliburn play as a soloist for its 100th anniversary season in 1991.

Following his Moscow triumph, Cliburn invited Kiril Kondrashin, the conductor with whom the pianist had played his prizewinning performances, from the Soviet Union to repeat the celebrated concert program with Cliburn at Carnegie Hall, the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, and in Washington, D.C. Their recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, released by RCA Victor, was the first classical recording ever to be certified Platinum, and has since sold more than three million copies.

Cliburn would go on to tour the Soviet Union several times between 1960 and 1972. In 1987, at the invitation of President Ronald Reagan, Cliburn performed a formal recital in the East Room of the White House during a state visit by Mikhail Gorbachev. Two years later, Cliburn returned to the Soviet Union to perform at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and in the Philharmonic Hall of Leningrad.

According to the Van Cliburn Foundation, Van Cliburn performed for every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He received Kennedy Center Honors in 2001, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 and the Russian Order of Friendship the following year, the highest civilian awards bestowed by the two countries.

President Obama honored Cliburn with the National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House in 2011.

Cliburn also opened many U.S. concert halls, including the I. M. Pei Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas; Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth; the Lied Center for the Performing Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska; and the Bob Hope Cultural Center in Palm Springs, Calif.

Mr. Cliburn was an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London. He received more than 20 honorary doctorate degrees. He provided scholarships at many schools, including the Juilliard School, the Cincinnati Conservatory, Texas Christian University, Louisiana State University, the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the Moscow Conservatory.

He is survived by long-standing friend Thomas L. Smith.

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