“The Steinway with its beauty and power is the perfect medium for expressing the performer’s art — drama and poetry.”

Van Cliburn

At the height of the Cold War in 1958, a young, tall drink of water from Texas loped into the lion’s den of Moscow and won the piano prize in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition. He won on Russian concertos (Tchaikovsky No. 1, Rachmaninoff No. 3) in front of a group of largely Russian judges that included Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Oistrakh, Richter and Zimbalist. Shostakovich chaired the competition.

Reminiscent of rock-star performances of a bygone era by Liszt, Paganini and Paderewski, women at the competition wept and fainted at Van Cliburn’s playing. The crowd was on his side. The judges were on his side. Nikita Khrushchev, embracing him after the concert in a great bear hug, was on his side. Looking back, what’s striking is not that Van Cliburn won in Russia, but that he won the Russians over.

When he returned home, Cliburn was an instant hero. He made the cover of Time: The Texan Who Conquered Russia. The twenty-three-year-old was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City. America had never bestowed such an honor on a classical musician — and never will again.

Van Cliburn shone, when the stars aligned, in an unscripted moment and was victorious. He didn’t possess the temperament or discipline for a concert pianist and he was no Cold Warrior. He was not America’s greatest pianist but something far nobler: our greatest ambassador for classical music. Through his recordings of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, through the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which has continued every four years in Fort Worth for a half-century, Cliburn exposed millions of Americans to classical music — many for the first time. —Ben Finane

Photo: Moshie Predan, Isreal, August 22, 1962

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