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For a time the lanky, impeccably turned out 23 year old from Texas with big, blond hair was the most famous pianist on the planet: he was greeted by President Eisenhower; became the only classical musician to be honoured with a ticker tape parade in New York blowing kisses from an open top car; and his RCA disc of Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto was the first classical recording to go platinum by selling more than a million copies. The irony was that Cliburn had already won the most significant American piano competition of his day yet was virtually unknown. It took a Cold War triumph for him to achieve recognition.
In October 1957 the Soviet Union had beaten the United States in the space race by successfully launching the Sputnik 1 satellite into orbit. Now Moscow wanted to demonstrate its cultural superiority. The jury at the inaugural Tchaikovsky Competition was itself a remarkable line up of Soviet musicians: Dmitri Shostakovich, Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter among them (along with Sir Arthur Bliss from Britain).
The intention had been that a Russian pianist would triumph. However, Cliburn performances of Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov Third so dazzled the jury that they sought advice from the very top. he the best? Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, is reported to have asked. give him the prize.
To the American media he was the Sputnik the who conquered Russia at the moment in the 1950s that the United States most needed a hero. Yet the politics of the situation were not for Cliburn. didn conquer anything, he said in 2008. a matter of fact, they conquered my heart.
Meanwhile, the imitation necklace bulgari Soviet Union was quick to portray his victory as evidence of that country policy of cultural rapprochement with the West. Cliburn prize was presented by Shostakovich, who later remarked that, far from being a great American victory, it had taken success in the Soviet Union for the Americans to realise what a great pianist they had bulgari necklace copy in their midst.
At first Cliburn played the part of the American hero tall, good looking and unassuming while starting all his recitals with the Star Spangled Banner. Before long a Van Cliburn Foundation and a Van Cliburn Competition had been established in Texas. The man himself did little more than lend his name to the ventures, but the competition in particular was sufficiently well funded to ensure that it became a major player in the international pantheon of classical fake bvlgari necklace gold music competitions.
For those who had not previously heard him perform, a Cliburn concert was a thrilling display, his performance dripping with virtuosity. However, for those looking for something more insightful he rarely had anything new to offer. He also eschewed chamber music and contemporary music, limiting his repertoire to a handful of well known warhorses such as Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, occasionally stretching himself to Schumann or Liszt.
Indeed, beneath his successful exterior Cliburn was a fragile personality. The deaths of his father and his manager the famous Sol Hurok in quick succession led him to withdraw from the concert platform in 1978 for many years, while an unsuccessful law suit by Thomas Zaremba, a mortician and former lover, claiming that Cliburn may have exposed him to Aids, rather tarnished his wholesome Texan image.
His increasingly rare appearances he turned up as an honorary juror at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, to the delight of thousands of middle aged Muscovites, and the rumours of his nocturnal practising (he would reputedly wake at dusk and practise until dawn) helped to create an aura of mystery.
Harvey Lavan Van Cliburn was born at Shreveport, Louisiana, on July 12 1934 and moved to Texas at the age of six. His father, Harvey, was a midlevel oil executive, while his mother, Rildia Bee O had studied with Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Franz Liszt and Anton Rubenstein; through her, Cliburn inherited the Hungarian composer approach to long phrasing and virtuosity. She was his first teacher and would make him sing every piece before he attempted to play it. However, she would overshadow his career until her death in 1994 on one return visit to Moscow he even sent her on stage to play his encores.
Cliburn, who as a child also played clarinet with his high school marching band, was 12 when he made his debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Five years later he enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York, studying with the Ukrainian born pianist Rosina Lhvinne, who introduced him to the tradition of the Russian Romantics.
Within three years he had won the prestigious Leventritt Award, which brought appearances with the orchestras of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Denver. However, the American accolade had been almost meaningless: according to his first biographer, an audience of barely 30 heard him win it, while Cliburn recalled that, despite his success, great record company banged the door in my face Uncertainty hung over his musical future in 1957 as he faced the prospect of the draft, but relief came when the Army rejected him.
The White House turned down pleas to fund his Moscow appearance, which was instead paid for by a trust. Yet once in Russia he soon became the focus of attention. The pianist Alexander Slobodyanik recalled the audience frenzy as Cliburn competed inside the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire: police military cordons fell down and the public climbed to the roofs by fire escapes. Outside the building there were riots. It was just crazy.
Back in America, Cliburn was an overnight celebrity. He appeared on every major television show; a screaming crowd in Philadelphia tore the handles from the doors of his limousine; Time magazine described him as Liszt and Presley rolled into one and his recording of the Tchaikovsky jostled with the soundtrack for South Pacific in the album charts.
Within weeks he was back in Bulgari pendant fake Europe, playing Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov at the Royal Albert Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Kirill Kondrashin who had conducted his prize winning performance. For the next decade he was a regular visitor to London and other major capitals, including Moscow where, in 1962, Khrushchev and Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Foreign Minister, were spotted in the audience applauding enthusiastically.
Despite his success, by the mid 1960s Van Cliburn enthusiasm for the Romantic keyboard repertoire was waning. He tried his hand at conducting and dabbled with jazz, leaving little significant mark on either. To some he was burnt out, exhausted from spending too many years on the international concert circuit; to others the magic had vanished, he had simply failed to live up to his initial promise.
After his self imposed exile from the concert world his as he called it Cliburn, who had been a resolute Russophile since the age of five, reappeared in 1987 to perform at the White House for President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. His comeback was complete in 1994 when he played to an audience of 350,000 in Grant Park, Chicago, but now the appearances were limited to about half a dozen a year.
He retained his boyish charm, using a book signing in Missouri in 1995 to sympathise with youngsters struggling with their piano practice ( natural instinct is not to do it; we must make ourselves do it and dealing with motivation ( I having a low energy day, I do scales very slowly
In 1998 he collapsed while performing Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto at the inaugural concert of the new Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, paid for by the city wealthy Bass family. According to one observer: was a forearm crash on to the keyboard, and for just a second it seemed like a temper tantrum. But instead of walking off, he crumpled to the floor, out cold. Thereafter his public performances were even rarer.
He was the subject of two books: The Van Cliburn Legend, by Abram Chasins (1959), a somewhat premature biography; and The Van Cliburn Story, by Howard Reich (1993), which offered little insight or critical analysis of so enigmatic a man. Meanwhile, the latter day race to honour him reflected the original Cold War stand off: in 2003 he was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W Bush; the following year President Putin gave him the Russian Order of Friendship.
Cliburn worshipped at the Broadway Baptist Church every week, and on one occasion sang with Billy Graham choir at Madison Square Garden. He continued to live on an 18 acre estate near Fort Worth, Texas, surrounded by his pianos, his dog and the ghosts of a briefly glorious career played out on the geopolitical stage at the height of the Cold War.
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