Saturday, September 30, 2023
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Van Cliburn, 78

(CN) - Van Cliburn, the only classical musician ever given a ticker-tape parade down Broadway, for winning the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, died Wednesday at his home in Fort Worth.

Cliburn shocked the Soviet Union and the United States when he won the USSR's showcase competition in 1958 at age 23, playing Tchaikovsky's First and Rachmaninoff's Third Concertos.

Soviet judges nervously asked Premier Nikita Khrushchev for permission to give the top prize to an American. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. "Then give him the prize."

Cliburn immediately became a hero to Americans, who seldom give such status to classical musicians. He toured successfully for 20 years, including 10 tours of the Soviet Union, before retreating into a somewhat reclusive lifestyle akin to that of other great piano eccentrics, such as Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould, though not quite so extreme. He filled 15 rooms with antiques at the hotel where he lived in New York before he moved back to Fort Worth.

His recording of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto was the first classical album to "go platinum" - sell more than 2 million copies.

Cliburn was known for his performances of Romantic works, but is more likely to be remembered as the artist who created the first visible crack in the ice of the Cold War.

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