American classical pianist Van Cliburn dies at age 78

Wed Feb 27, 2013 2:10pm EST
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(Reuters) - American pianist Van Cliburn, who awed Russian audiences with his exquisite Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos and won fame and fortune back home, died on Wednesday at the age of 78.

Cliburn passed away at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, after suffering from advanced bone cancer, his publicist Mary Lou Falcone told Reuters. Cliburn announced in August 2012 that he had been diagnosed with the disease.

The lanky, blue-eyed Texan, who began taking piano lessons at the age of 3 and later trained at New York's prestigious Juilliard School, burst onto the world stage at the height of the Cold War and was the surprise winner of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

His performance at the finale led to an eight-minute standing ovation, and the Russian judges asked Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for permission to give the top prize to the 23-year-old American.

Cliburn's triumph helped spur a brief thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations and made him an overnight sensation in the United States, where his name was known even among those who did not follow classical music.

"It was he that was the symbol of peace for the Cold War," Falcone said. "He was embraced by both Eisenhower and Khrushchev in the 1950s and the only musician to have a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan."

Time magazine dubbed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia" in a cover story following his victory, and New York City gave the pianist a hero's welcome upon his return from Russia.

Taken on by the powerful impresario Sol Hurok, Cliburn was able to command high fees and practically had carte blanche in the recording studio.

His recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, which he had played in Moscow, became the first classical album to go platinum and was the best-selling classical album for more than a decade.   Continued...

Pianist Van Cliburn speaks before the presentation of the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 18, 2008. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer