One does not simply walk into Moscow...
...and kick the Russians' butts, playing their own music, during the Cold War.
But that's just what a modest gay kid from Louisiana and Texas did. A graduate of Julliard, Van Cliburn had always wanted to go to Russia. In 1958, the 24 year old went there to compete in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition.
Consider the era. The Soviets had just launched Sputnik, and felt that they were on a roll. They started this competition to show the world that the U.S.S.R. was not only technically advanced, but culturally the world leaders, as well. And, frankly, when it comes to virtuoso pianists, the Russians have a long and proud history.
Cliburn played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.
And he blew them away.
He won first prize, in an upset that in some ways was akin to Jesse Owens excelling at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.
Give the Soviets this: They reportedly applauded him for eight minutes, and then gave him the prize. He came home to a ticker tape parade, and a family friend presented a check for $10,000 to begin a piano competition in Fort Worth, TX, named in Van Cliburn's honor. This was one of the things that has made Fort Worth a significant artistic destination.
Cliburn quit performing publicly in the '70s, when he felt that he couldn't give the quality that he believed that he should, anymore. But he continued to act as a cultural ambassador, acting as a servant of music. He lived in Fort Worth, TX until he passed away at 78.
We lost an icon, yesterday.