One of the great concert pianists of the twentieth century has departed. Van Cliburn died this morning at the age of 78. He is best remembered as the winner of the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow—a victory that contributed to the “thaw” of the Cold War in late 1950s and early 1960s.
Van Cliburn was also, from the getgo, intricately connected to radio, which passionately celebrated him in the wake of his triumph—both here and everywhere else, including Russia. Shortly after accepting the prize, he met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev.
“Oh, you’re very tall,” Khrushchev noted. “My father gave me so many vitamins,” Cliburn jovially responded.
“I listened to you on the radio,” Khrushchev said to Cliburn’s surprise. “I loved the way you played the F Minor Fantasy.”
I too listened to Van Cliburn on the radio, not just to enjoy his wonderfully serene style, but because he often hosted radio broadcasts of piano competitions or the concerts of other famous artists. He had a classy voice and a great big heart for struggling musicians. He himself probably would have fallen into obscurity had it not been for the Moscow breakthrough.
The Van Cliburn Foundation indefatigably promotes amateur and professional music makers, and Cliburn Radio streams a wonderful selection of great piano performances. National Public Radio has an extensive Van Cliburn page. Minnesota Public Radio is building a Spotify playlist. WQXR in New York has his Carnegie Hall debut up; Last.fm is all over the guy, as is Pandora.
Rest in peace to a great artist and philanthropist.