- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 1, 2001

Van Cliburn is a romantic pianist known for his unwavering slow notes, relatively small repertoire and, most important, beating the Russians at least musically when the United States most needed a hero in the 1950s.
"Americans were paranoid about communism [in the 1950s]," says Howard Reich, a music critic for the Chicago Tribune and a biographer of Mr. Cliburn. "We were so hungry for something that showed us that we weren't losing. And along comes Van Cliburn and becomes this international symbol."
Mr. Cliburn, who is among this year's Kennedy Center Honorees, is perhaps best known for his rendition of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the pieces he played to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow 1958, at the height of the Cold War.
Mr. Cliburn was 23 years old and a 6-foot-4-inch, handsome Texan. No one expected him to win.
"Russians had a very low opinion of American culture. But he impressed them," says Richard Pipes, a Cold War historian based in Cambridge, Mass. "He helped show that Americans were not all cowboys and millionaires but also great artists."
When Mr. Cliburn returned to the United States he was greeted as a national hero with a ticker tape parade in New York, the first musician to ever receive such a welcome.
"He was important enough politically for Eisenhower and other presidents to court him and be photographed with him," Mr. Reich says.
When the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957, many Americans had felt defeated. But with Mr. Cliburn's unexpected win on Russian soil, Americans felt somewhat vindicated.
"I think he would be the most important political symbol within American culture [if it weren't for Leonard Bernstein]," Mr. Reich says.
Composer and conductor Bernstein conducted celebratory pieces on both sides of the Berlin Wall as it was being dismantled in December 1989.

While lauded by the general public, Mr. Cliburn has been criticized throughout his career which has slowed significantly by music writers across the nation for his drawn-out, romantic delivery and repertoire mostly confined to romantic composers.
But Mr. Cliburn never has played to please critics.
"It's an artist's prerogative to play the way he wants," Mr. Reich says. "Van Cliburn styles himself after an older-style virtuoso. They had a few pieces where they excelled."
Mr. Reich calls the tempo "a relaxed Texas sensibility he was not in a rush to get anywhere."
Mr. Cliburn endured the criticism, maintained the integrity of his interpretation and pleased fans by the millions, says Santiago Rodriguez, a concert pianist and professor and artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park. "I have never seen an artist withstand so much criticism," he says.
"Cliburn has a very unique style of play," Mr. Rodriguez says. "He showed that you can be a romantic without making a parody of romantic music. It's romanticism without the neurotic intensities."
Mr. Cliburn, born in Shreveport, La., but essentially a Texan having moved to that state at age 6 started playing the piano skillfully and seemingly without effort when most children were busy playing in the sandbox.
When the young Cliburn was 3, his mother discovered that her son had an exceptional talent for picking up, by ear and playing perfectly, pieces that her piano students were rehearsing. (His mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, had been a pupil of Arthur Friedheim, who had studied with Franz Liszt. Mr. Cliburn says his mother could have been a concert pianist in her own right if the times had been kinder to female artists.)
She taught him piano for much of his childhood, although he had other piano teachers, too. By the time he was 12, Mr. Cliburn performed with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
At age 17, Mr. Cliburn began studying at the Juilliard School in New York City. His teacher was Rosina Lhevinne, a pianist who said he played Sergei Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 so superbly that not even Rachmaninoff played it better. Rachmaninoff and Mrs. Lhevinne were both graduates of the Moscow Conservatory.
Mr. Rodriguez was 15 years old when he heard Mr. Cliburn's rendition of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 in New Orleans.
"He gave me tremendous inspiration," Mr. Rodriguez says. "As a young player, you practice all the time. You need to have a dream of what you can amount to, and Cliburn gave the idea of the success story."

Mr. Cliburn has inspired generations of pianists, such as Mr. Rodriguez, who won the silver medal in the 1980 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which Mr. Cliburn helped found in the early 1960s.
"That's part of his legacy, too. He was the hero for a whole generation of piano players," Mr. Rodriguez says.
But Mr. Cliburn's influence went beyond piano and pianists. He represents the golden age of classical and symphonic music, Mr. Reich says. For two decades, from the late 1950s until the late 1970s, symphonies and orchestras sprang up in cities and communities all over the country.
"1958 was a turning point for [Mr. Cliburn] and for culture and music in America," Mr. Reich says. "I think for the next 20 years he inspired a lot of people. I think a lot of people went to study music with him as a model, just like a lot of people went to journalism school with [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein in mind."
After his Moscow victory, Mr. Cliburn performed and recorded at breakneck speed. He broke sales records for classical music with one of his recordings of Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1, and he maintained a touring schedule of about 100 performances a year for two decades.
He established the Van Cliburn Foundation and helped organize the first Van Cliburn piano competition (held every four years) in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1962.
In 1978, he stopped performing. "I think he had just had it up to here with attention," Mr. Reich says. Mr. Cliburn did not return to the public stage until 1987 when first lady Nancy Reagan requested a performance at the White House in honor of her guests, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa.
"Mrs. Reagan wanted entertainment that would be meaningful, and she knew that the Soviets adored Van Cliburn," says Linda Faulkner, who was social secretary during the Reagan administration.
"We knew it was a major coup to get him," says Ms. Faulkner, who now lives in Dallas.
Mrs. Reagan's wish was fulfilled as Mr. Cliburn performed for the Gorbachevs and about 100 other guests in the State Dining Room at the White House.
He connected very well with the audience, says Ms. Faulkner, and when Mrs. Gorbachev asked for an encore, Mr. Cliburn responded, "Only if you help me."
What ensued was the playing of a famous Russian folk song. The Soviet guests sang the lyrics while Mr. Cliburn accompanied them on the piano.
"It was absolutely sublime," Ms. Faulkner says. "It was a moment within that administration that I will never forget."

Mr. Cliburn has performed sparingly during the past decade but has received such recognition for his lifetime of achievements as an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Juilliard.
"When I heard he got the Kennedy Center Award, I was so delighted," Mr. Reich says. "For that to be acknowledged in Washington is so appropriate. No one sums up the intersection of politics and music better than Bernstein or Cliburn."
Sherry Wilkerson, Mr. Cliburn's personal assistant, says her boss is very honored to receive the award and will be accompanied to the District by about 50 of his closest friends from Fort Worth.
But, she says, "don't expect an impromptu performance."

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