Van Cliburn, American classical pianist

cdcovers/tchaikovsky/concerto no 1 van cliburn.jpg

Van Cliburn was just a pianist much the way Neil Armstrong was merely an astronaut. Simply put, the tall Texan’s musical talent and successes were out of this world.

Cliburn, who died Wednesday February 27, 2013 at age 78 at his Fort Worth home due to complications from bone cancer, was 23 when he strode into Moscow for the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition, created to showcase Soviet cultural superiority.

Playing with unerring precision and sublime emotion, he took the top prize and was given a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan, the first and last time a pianist won such an honor.

“Imagine galvanizing the attention of the entire world in the pre-Internet, pre-global TV year of 1958,” says Howard Reich, who got to know the Texas-based pianist while researching his 1993 biography, Van Cliburn. “As a Texan, he was so emblematic of the United States. But the Russians fell in love with his romanticism.”

In many ways, however, that seminal performance both made his name and sealed his fate.

The pieces that won him the competition — Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 — sold countless records (his Tchaikovsky No. 1 was the first classical record to sell more than a million copies) and became required concert staples.

“Playing on that treadmill for the next 20 years led him to burn out, and by 1978 he looked terrible and bowed out of public life,” says Reich. “He was a gentle soul, and that harsh public spotlight had a negative effect on him.”

It would be nine years before Cliburn performed again, at the White House for Ronald Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Although he made occasional appearances in the following decades, he spent most of his time overseeing his foundation and a quadrennial competition that bears his name.

“I can’t think of anyone who has done more to help promote the instrument and young performers than Van,” says Cliburn’s friend Yoheved Kaplinsky, chairman of the piano department at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, which Cliburn attended. “He was an icon in Fort Worth, and a person of great humility.”

Born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. in Shreveport, La., Cliburn started piano lessons at age 3 and immediately showed prowess under the watchful eye of his mother, who had trained on the instrument under a teacher who had studied with Franz Liszt.

After moving to Texas, Cliburn played with Houston’s symphony at age 12, and at 17 entered Juilliard. At 20, he performed with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, setting the stage for his triumphant coup in Russia.

No one can imagine a ticker-tape parade for a pianist in this era, but in Cliburn’s heyday he was as much an inevitable cultural icon as he was a reluctant political figure. In the late ’50s, the Cold War was raging, the Beatles were still practicing and classical music still held sway.

But what truly made Cliburn unique was the humble ease with which he went about seducing the alleged enemy.

“Van marched in full of the musical values of the Old World, full of tremendous sincerity and with a remarkable ability to connect with audiences,” says Kaplinsky. “He may have transcended the boundaries of the art world and breached into the political world, but foremost Van was a consummate artist.”

That artistry is on display in various YouTube clips of Cliburn reprising his competition-winning form in Moscow in 1962. The pianist’s eyes are often closed as massive hands fly across the length of the keyboard. Utterly lost in the music, Cliburn seems almost oblivious to his audience.

“He had more of everything,” says Reich. “More height, more smiles, more sweep on the piano.”

In his later years, Cliburn collected the usual array of awards accorded cultural heroes. A Kennedy Center Honors tribute in 2001, a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, and in 2004 Russia’s equivalent, the Russian Order of Friendship. In 2004, there was a predictable Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1994 a less-expected guest appearance as himself in the TV cartoon Iron Man.

On the personal front, Cliburn was a devout Baptist but also quietly gay; in the late ’90s, his longtime partner, Thomas Zaremba, unsuccessfully sued the pianist over compensation claims.

Ultimately, Cliburn will be remembered not just as a performer of startling skill, but also as a global cultural sensation in the age of shortwave radio.

“He did something that no one could have ever imagined back then,” says Reich. “He was ubiquitous.”

Adapted from USA Today

February 27 ~ Today in Music History

today

. 1848 ~ Hubert Parry, English composer, teacher and historian of music.

. 1873 ~ Enrico Caruso, Italian tenor, sang nearly 70 roles; appeared in nearly every country of Europe and North and South America
Read quotes by and about Caruso
More information about Caruso

. 1883 ~ Oscar Hammerstein of New York City patented the first practical cigar- rolling machine. If Oscar’s name sounds familiar, it should. Hammerstein’s grandson later made his mark by writing some of the best- known music in the world, teaming up frequently with Richard Rodgers.

. 1887 ~ Lotte Lehman, Singer

. 1897 ~ Marian Anderson, Opera diva

. 1923 ~ Dexter Gordon, American jazz tenor saxophonist

. 1927 ~ Guy Mitchell (Al Cernick), Singer, actor

. 1935 ~ Mirella Freni, Italian soprano

. 1936 ~ Chuck Glaser, Singer with Glaser Brothers

. 1948 ~ Eddie Gray, Guitarist with Tommy James & The Shondells

. 1951 ~ Steve Harley (Nice), Singer with Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel

. 1954 ~ Neal Schon, Guitarist with Santana; Journey

. 1955 ~ Garry Christian, Singer with The Christians

. 1970 ~ Simon and Garfunkel received a gold record for the single, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

. 2003 ~ Tom Glazer, 88, the balladeer, guitarist and songwriter who, along with Burl Ives, Josh White, Pete Seeger and others, helped spark national interest in folk music in the 1940s, died. Mr. Glazer wrote songs for children, including a hit 1963 parody, On Top of Spaghetti, that won him National Critics’ and Parent Magazine awards. He also acted, sang and wrote for movies and TV. He was singer-narrator for the film, Sweet Land of Liberty, and composed the score for the Andy Griffith film A Face in the Crowd. Mr. Glazer was a native of Philadelphia who attended the City College of New York. As a young man, he played tuba and bass in military and jazz bands and worked at the Library of Congress. He began singing with a group while living in Washington, and was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to perform at the White House. Mr. Glazer became a full-time musician in 1943 and, over the years, hosted three radio series. He also wrote books about music, including a number of songbooks. His song Because All Men Are Brothers, based on the Passion Chorale by J. S. Bach, was recorded by the Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary. Other hits included, Old Soldiers Never Die for Vaughn Monroe, More for Perry Como, Til We Two Are Onefor Georgie Shaw, and A Worried Man, recorded by the Kingston Trio. His song, The Musicians was used on the “Barney” television show for children; Bob Dylan recorded his Talking Inflation Blues.

. 2003 ~ Fred Rogers, who gently invited millions of children to be his neighbor as host of the public television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for more than 30 years, died. He was 74. From 1968 to 2000, Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, produced the show at Pittsburgh public television station WQED. The final new episode, which was taped in December 2000, aired in August 2001, though PBS affiliates continued to air back episodes. Rogers composed his own songs for the show and began each episode in a set made to look like a comfortable living room, singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…”, as he donned sneakers and a zip-up cardigan. His message remained simple: telling his viewers to love themselves and others. On each show, he would take his audience on a magical trolley ride into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where his puppet creations would interact with each other and adults. Rogers did much of the puppet work and voices himself. He also studied early childhood development at the University of Pittsburgh and consulted with an expert there over the years. Rogers’ show won four Emmy Awards, plus one for lifetime achievement. He was given a George Foster Peabody Award in 1993, “in recognition of 25 years of beautiful days in the neighborhood.” One of Rogers’ red sweaters hangs in the Smithsonian Institution.

. 2003 ~ Jean Sullivan, a musician, dancer and actress who starred opposite Errol Flynn in the 1944 film “Uncertain Glory,” died of cardiac arrest. She was 79. Sullivan was the leading lady Marianne in “Uncertain Glory” and also has a starring role in the 1945 movie “Escape in the Desert.” The young actress also played the daughter of Rosalind Russell and Jack Carson in the motion picture comedy “Roughly Speaking.” Despite a budding acting career, Sullivan relocated to New York and began studying ballet and dancing professionally. While practicing flamenco steps during a Carnegie Hall rehearsal, Sullivan was discovered by choreographer Anthony Tudor and was a dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. She enhanced her flamenco by playing Spanish guitar and became a popular entertainer at Latin nightclubs throughout New York City. Sullivan also played cello and piano. Despite her career change, Sullivan performed flamenco on TV variety shows, including “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Jackie Gleason Show.” She also was a meteorologist on local New York television stations.

. 2013 ~ Van Cliburn died.  He was an American pianist who achieved worldwide recognition in 1958 at the age of 23, when he won the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.