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Van Cliburn: Classical Music Rock Star

Published: 2/27/2014
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Van Cliburn (AP Photo / Ron Heflin)

Van Cliburn died one year ago today. The pianist was an anomaly in the music world: a classical musician who achieved rock-star status. The adulation usually reserved for stars along the lines of Elvis Presley and the Beatles was heaped on Cliburn when he made his triumphant 1958 return from the Soviet Union at age 23 after winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, a Cold War-era competition intended to showcase the superiority of the host country. When the judges named Cliburn the victor – after checking with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to make sure it was OK for an American to win – they made him a superstar. His home country honored him with a ticker-tape parade, a concert at Carnegie Hall and a Time magazine cover calling him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia." There was such a rush to buy his recording of the winning piece – Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 – that the album went platinum in its first year, and eventually triple platinum.

Cliburn performed for every U.S. president from 1958 until his death at 78. He was honored with awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts. We remember his remarkable life today with a look at two of his greatest moments.

An excerpt from the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto that made Cliburn a phenomenon:

Cliburn receives the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001:

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

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