At 23, he looked like a tall, goofy kid, all arms and legs and curly hair and a big Texas smile. But Van Cliburn, of Texas in the U.S.A., had a dazzling touch on the keyboard that entranced Soviet audiences in 1958, on his way to winning the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Six months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, Cliburn landed in Moscow to a roar of applause.
In the midst of the Cold War — a struggle that often involved symbolic one-upmanship — Americans embraced Van Cliburn as one of the war’s heroes. Though he’d been tremendously received by the people of Moscow, he was cast for a time as a man who’d beaten the Soviets at their own competition. It was a role that took him to worldwide fame, along, of course, with his spectacular playing, particularly of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
Cliburn was the first classical musician to gain a rock-star sort of following, and he really put a younger, hipper face on classical music, spreading its popularity and drawing sell-out crowds in large and medium-sized cities (yes, he played in Raleigh) for years, though he retired the first time in the late 1970s.
Cliburn endured all sorts of labels, from being compared to Elvis Presley to being criticized for his commercial success, but he was a homebody of sorts, staying close to his Fort Worth, Tex., mansion and a few close friends. Patrons started the Van Cliburn Foundation and a now-prestigious piano competition that bears the pianist’s name.
Though he might have marketed his youth and personal magnetism in a more aggressive way, Cliburn was in fact a serious musician, though one whose greatest success came early in his career. Though he had won other contests, it was the Tchaikovsky, and the fact that The New York Times’ Max Frankel was there, that really caused Cliburn’s career to explode. And his fame never really faded, except by his own design.