Van Cliburn, the lanky Texan who beat the Russians playing Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff at the first Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, died Wednesday at his Fort Worth home.
The 78-year-old pianist died from bone cancer, said his publicist and longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone.
Upon his return from Moscow after taking the prestigious gold medal, Cliburn was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the first time a classical musician received such an honor. Cliburn studied with noted pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne at The Juilliard School.
He was quickly signed by RCA and began one of the busiest and most lucrative concert careers. His recording of the Tchaikovsky “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor” was the first classical record that achieved platinum status. It has sold more than 3 million copies.
For the next two decades, Cliburn toured extensively and recorded a number of repertory staples with major conductors and orchestras. Following the death of his father, Harvey Lavan Cliburn, and his agent and impresario Sol Hurok, in the 1970s, Cliburn took a break from performing. He returned to the stage in 1987 but played only sporadically in the years that followed.
One of the rare engagements he accepted was an invitation to perform with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in 1996. For this gala, sold-out concert, Cliburn played his signature work, the Tchaikovsky concerto.
“Cliburn had that very rare, special quality that made him America's first superstar classical musician,” said Oklahoma City Philharmonic music director Joel Levine. “After his last appearance here with the Philharmonic, he stood for several hours at the reception and graciously signed autographs, shared stories with the many admirers and posed for photos, truly enjoying every moment. He was a man of extraordinary grace and class, and there will probably never be another like him.”