Harvey "Van" Cliburn Jr. was born July 12, 1934 in Shreveport, La. He died early Feb. 27 at his home in Fort Worth surrounded by loved ones according to a longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone.
Cliburn's last public appearance was at the 50th anniversary of the Van Cliburn piano competition last September. The competition was first held in 1962 in Forth Worth, Texas and is funded by the Van Cliburn Foundation that in turn was founded by Fort Worth area teachers to honor Van Cliburn for winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition four years before. At the competition, he played Tchaikovsky’s First Piano concerto. I have included a YouTube video of Van Cliburn playing the first movement of the same concerto in the early sixties in Moscow. A recording with this conductor and orchestra was the first classical album ever to reach platinum status.
When he first returned to New York City after winning, there was actually a ticker tape parade and in true Cold War style, Time magazine had a cover which proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia." Supposedly, then-president Nikita Khrushchev gave approval to award a foreigner the prize and told the judges: "Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize."
President awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Van Cliburn in 2003. Russian gave him the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation the following year. At the time of the Russian award Van Cliburn said: “I still have lots of friends in Russia. It’s always a great pleasure to talk to older people in Russia, to hear their anecdotes."
In 1978, a few years after the death of his father, Van Cliburn stopped touring to be with his ailing mother but in 1987 he played at a state dinner in the White House when visited. Gorbachev gave the pianist a bear hug after he had finished.
Van Cliburn was gay, as was one of his favorite composers, Tchaikovsky. He leaves behind a wealth of recordings and YouTube has a number of performances available.