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.”
Cliburn returned to Oklahoma two years later to perform with the University of Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra. Allan Ross conducted the orchestra in a performance of Rachmaninoff's “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.”
“Van Cliburn and his exceptional talent will be greatly missed,” said OU President David Boren, a longtime friend of the pianist. “We will always remember him at the University of Oklahoma, where he presented one of his last public concerts playing with our symphony orchestra. He was especially generous in sharing extra time with our piano students.”
In 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was established to honor Cliburn's efforts to promote the development of young artists. The quadrennial competition has helped launch the careers of many major artists, including Radu Lupu, Cristina Ortiz, Andre-Michel Schub, Jose Feghali and Jon Nakamatsu. The 14th competition will be held in Fort Worth in June.
Cliburn received more than 20 honorary doctorates, established scholarships at many music schools and conservatories and performed for every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
He was honored with a Kennedy Center Honor in 2001 and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2004. George W. Bush presented Cliburn the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, and Obama awarded Cliburn the National Medal of Arts in 2011.
Services are pending.
Contributing: The Associated Press