February 27, 2013 8:34 pm

Van Cliburn, star pianist, dies at 78

FILE - This Sept. 18, 2008 file photo shows pianist Van Cliburn at the presentation ceremony of the Liberty Medal that was presented to former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in Philadelphia. 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 early Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, at his Fort Worth home following a battle with bone cancer. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek, file)©PA

Van Cliburn shot to fame at the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition but an later years he rarely appeared on the concert platform

FORT WORTH, Texas – Van Cliburn, the American pianist whose triumph at a 1958 Moscow competition deep in the cold war launched a career that gave him almost rock-star status, has died. He was 78.

Cliburn died early on Wednesday at his Texas home surrounded by loved ones after a battle with bone cancer, 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,” Ms Falcone said. “He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met.”

Cliburn made what would be his last public appearance in September at the 50th anniversary of the piano competition named after him. “Never forget: I love you all from the bottom of my heart, for ever,” he said to a standing ovation.

Cliburn shot to fame when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the age of 23 in 1958, six months after the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik propelled the world into the space age.

Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, reportedly gave the approval for the Tchaikovsky contest judges to honour a foreigner: “Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize.”He returned to a New York City ticker tape parade – the first for a classical musician – and a Time magazine cover proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia”.

Despite the tension between the nations, Cliburn became a hero to music-loving Soviets who clamoured to see him perform.

In the years that followed Cliburn’s popularity soared and the young man 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 Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto No. 1 with Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin became the first classical album to reach platinum status.

The first man in history to be a Horowitz, Liberace and Presley all rolled into one

- Friend of Cliburn

Time magazine’s 1958 cover story quoted a friend as saying Cliburn could become “the first man in history to be a Horowitz, Liberace and Presley all rolled into one”. He performed for royalty, heads of state in Europe, Asia and South America and played for every US 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,” he once said.

The pianist also used his skill and fame to help other young musicians through the Van Cliburn International Music Competition. Established in 1962, the competition, held every four years, remains a pre-eminent showcase for the world’s top pianists.

“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,” Cliburn said during the 10th competition in 1997.

George W. Bush presented Cliburn with the US presidential medal of freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, in 2003. In 2004, the pianist received the order of friendship of the Russian Federation from Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I still have lots of friends in Russia,” 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, Cliburn announced he would soon retire to spend more time with his ailing mother. He stopped touring in 1978. The pianist 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.”

It was thrilling to be wanted. But it was pressure, too

- Cliburn

He said of winning the Tchaikovsky contest: “It was thrilling to be wanted. But it was pressure, too.”

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

Cliburn was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. on July 12, 1934, in Louisiana, the son of oilman Harvey Cliburn senior and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. At three, he began studying piano with his mother, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with a pupil of Franz Liszt.

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

Between 1952 and 1958, he won all but one competition he entered. By age 20, he had played with the New York Philharmonic and the symphonies of most major cities.

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

After 1990, Cliburn toured Japan numerous times and performed throughout the US. He was in the middle of a 16-city US tour in 1994 when his mother died at age 97.

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