Remembering Van Cliburn: The pianist the Russians embraced

Today, the world lost a classical music legend.  American pianist Van Cliburn, who is best remembered as the Texan who awed Russian audiences with exquisitely performed Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos in 1958, died at the age of 78. Cliburn passed away at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, after suffering from advanced bone cancer.

During the height of the Cold War, Cliburn who began taking piano lessons at the age of 3 and later trained at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, burst onto the world stage by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. His performance at the finale led to an eight-minute standing ovation, and the Russian judges asked Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for permission to give the top prize to the 23-year-old American.

Personally, I recall my father telling me Cliburn and his amazing win as a young boy.  Thinking back on it, I was too young to truly comprehend what the win meant until I was much older.

This defining moment in music history could easily be compared to the U.S. hockey team winning the Olympic Gold Medal in 1980, politically speaking, except Cliburn had to win in Russia.

Cliburn was the artist to have a classical recording awarded a platinum album. He recorded Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Kiril Kondrashin, the conductor with whom the pianist had played his prizewinning performances. Kondrashin visited the U.S. to repeat the celebrated concert program with Van Cliburn at Carnegie Hall in New York, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, and in Washington, D.C.

His career was short-lived after getting burned out and formally withdrew from performing regular performances in 1972. Cliburn remained dedicated to his piano competition, The Cliburn, which happens every four years, by giving young pianists an opportunity to achieve their own glory.

It’s not surprising the 2013 competition will be dedicated to the piano legend.  Thirty of the world’s finest pianists will be invited to compete for the coveted Cliburn medals for chance to win more than $175,000 in prizes and awards, and three years of commission-free career management valued at over $1.3 million.

President George W. Bush presented Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor – in 2003. The following year, he received the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation from Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Cliburn performed for every President of the United States since Harry Truman and for royalty and heads of state in Europe, Asia, and South America. He also received Kennedy Center Honors and the Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award.

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