He lost his fight with bone cancer today, at the age of 78
But this performance lives, along with so many other marvelous memories he left for us.
It’s a video of his return to Moscow in 1962, playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, his rendition of which four years before had stunned the world…
… Cliburn’s performance at the competition finale of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 earned him a standing ovation lasting eight minutes. When it was time to announce a winner, the judges were obliged to ask permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American.
“Is he the best?” Khrushchev asked. “Then give him the prize!“
…and launched an classical pianist into the unexpected role of superstar American hero.
…But he remained little known outside music circles before arriving in Moscow in 1958 at a time when Cold War tensions were running high, coming just six months after the Soviet Union had launched its first Sputnik satellite.
Competing against 49 other pianists from 19 countries at the first Tchaikovsky International Piano and Violin Festival, the technically brilliant Cliburn created a sensation with the romantic sweep of his playing.
Trumpeted on the cover of Time magazine as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia,” the lanky, 6-foot-4 Cliburn was given a hero’s welcome in New York City with what was a first for a classical musician: a ticker-tape parade.
Like a rock star, Cliburn was besieged by screaming admirers in cities where he appeared. And after playing before audiences of more than 80,000 on two nights in Chicago, the city’s Elvis Presley Fan Club changed its name to the Van Cliburn Fan Club.
Gorgeous. Just gorgeous.
He was as graceful in character as he was on the keyboard and we are so lucky to have had him.