Van Cliburn passes away at 78
Val Cliburn, the lanky American pianist who captivated Russian audiences and provided a one-man thaw to the Cold War, died Wednesday at his home in Fort Worth at the age of 78 of bone cancer. He is survived by his longtime partner Thomas L. Smith.
“Van was a treasured member of the Fort Worth community who belonged to the world,” said Carla Kemp Thompson, chairman of the Van Cliburn Foundation. “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.”
The Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano, which takes place May 24-June 9 at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall, is dedicated to the pianist and competition founder’s memory.
Cliburn’s Gold Medal win at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 catapulted the handsome 23-year-old Texan to international fame, the pianist’s Tchaikovsky performance winning the hearts of Russian audiences. He returned home from Moscow to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time classical musician ever honored.
A string of best-selling recordings and honors followed. Following his victory in Moscow, Mr. Cliburn played in several cities in the Soviet Union and toured widely. Cliburn played for every living president from Harry Truman on, including a memorable White House recital in 1987 before President and Mrs. Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s general secretary. His many honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Russian Order of Friendship.
If his later years as a musician were marked by a series of retirements and comebacks, sometimes to critical reviews, it is the competition that bears his name that may well be Cliburn’s most lasting musical legacy. Launched in 1962, Cliburn winners include Radu Lupu, Olga Kern, Cristina Ortiz, and Jon Nakamatsu.