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Van Cliburn (born July 12, 1934) is an American pianist who achieved worldwide recognition in 1958 when, at the age of 23, he won the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War.
Cliburn was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr. in Shreveport, Louisiana, and began taking piano lessons at the age of three from his mother, Rhilda Bee O'Bryan (who had been taught by Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Franz Liszt). When Cliburn was six, he and his family moved to Kilgore, Texas, and at twelve he won a statewide piano competition which enabled him to debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He entered The Juilliard School at age 17, and studied under Rhosa Levinne, who trained him in the tradition of the great Russian romanticists. At age 20, Cliburn won the prestigious Levintritt Award, and made his Carnegie Hall debut.
But it was his recognition in Moscow which propelled him to international fame. The First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition was an event designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, on the heels of their technological victory of the Sputnik launch only weeks before. Cliburn's luminous virtuousity in his competition finale performances of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 earned him a standing ovation which lasted a full eight minutes. The Soviet judges were compelled to ask Premier Nikita Khrushchev for permission to give the first prize to an American. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked them. "Then give him the prize!" Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time that honour has been accorded a classical musician. TIME put him on their cover, proclaiming him as "The Texan Who Conquered Russia." RCA signed him to an exclusive contract, and his subsequent recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, became the first classical album to sell a million copies. It was the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade, eventually becoming triple-platinum.
In 1962, Cliburn became the artistic advisor for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition . The competition was founded by a group of Fort Worth, Texas music teachers and volunteers, and its prestige now rivals that of the Tchaikovsky Competition.
Cliburn performed and recorded through the 1970s, and in 1978, after the deaths of his father and manager, began a hiatus from public life. In 1987, he was invited to perform at the White House for President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbechev, and afterwards was invited to open the 100th anniversary season of Carnegie Hall. He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and, in October of 2004, the Russian Friendship Medal, the two highest civilian awards of the two countries. Now at age 70, he still gives a limited number of performances every year, to critical and popular acclaim.
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