Every young pianist has his or her heros. One of mine was the late pianist Van Cliburn. Van Cliburn achieved fame for winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow during the height of the Cold War. It is said that the judges had to ask for permission from the Soviet leader at the time, Nikita Krushchev, in order just to award him the prize. They gave him the prize and he went on to worldwide fame.
But that is only half the reason why I found Cliburn compelling. He was not, as I am not, a product of the Northeast. He was born in Louisiana and lived for many years in Texas. In fact, he was very proud of being a Texan. I think that there are some who tend to think that civilization is not really to be found outside of New York City and its environs in North America. While this may, of course, be a stereotype, I always appreciated in Cliburn that here was a man who was a Southerner, a Texan, and who was adamantly proud of being so. He never forgot his roots.
Like Glenn Gould, he eventually took a hiatus from performing. Unlike Gould, though, who tended to prefer solitude, Cliburn was very active in the musical community even if he wasn’t performing. He did much promote the careers of other young pianists through his work with the Cliburn Foundation and the competitions which bear his name. Every Sunday that he was in town, he would be found in his pew at the Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth. He would, however, perform every now and then. He had performed at the White House many times. He gave a surprise concert for former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s 50th birthday party. George W. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2010, President Obama awarded him the National Arts Medal.
Cliburn died a few months ago. He is missed by many, I am sure.