I'm not sure we've ever remembered to include Van Cliburn on a list of great American classical musicians, but he is a stand-out among our most gifted pianists. He won his first piano competition, during the Cold War in Moscow in 1958, at the age of 23. He debuted at Carnegie Hall at the age of 20.
In his youth, he was an all-American star with his good looks and good manners and was the "right Texan" at the "right time" to make musical history. He was perfect for the ticker tape parades, appearing at the Kremlin, the White House, TV, or the Hollywood Bowl. The public was held in thrall to his massive celebrity back in his day.
No one ever suspected Tchaikovsky could sound so terrific with a 'Texas accent.'
The LA Philharmonic snapped him up in 1958.
"He was the first American classical musician to fill the Hollywood Bowl on two consecutive evenings. He played Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, a work now in the fingers of hundreds of pianists but then still thought to be beyond just about anyone other than the incredible Vladimir Horowitz or the composer himself. The reviews report that Cliburn dazzled.
He appeared again at the Bowl the following summer to play concertos for two benefit concerts aimed to help raise money to build the Los Angeles Music Center. Cliburn was more popular than ever. He dazzled again and filled the coffers. He could make his audiences believe that anything was possible, and thanks to him, Angelenos began to believe that a Music Center might really be possible."
Van Cliburn was one of the most celebrated pianists of the 20th century. He died of bone cancer on February 27th, at his home in Ft. Worth, TX.
You'd have to read more details about his amazing life, his travels, and the nature of his fame during the Cold War to understand what a fine and refined person he was, and remained during his career; apparently, before arriving in Moscow 2-years ago to perform a concert, he sincerely asked his friends, "Do you really think they'll remember me?"