The Associated Press has reported that American pianist Van Cliburn (born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. in 1934) passed away Wednesday. The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music describes him as “one of the most accomplished classical musicians America has ever produced.”
News researcher Belinda Harris alerted me that the Texas musician, famous for his victory in a 1958 Moscow competition, has a couple of Roanoke connections. Not long after his nationally-celebrated victory, he was booked to play at Jefferson High School in Roanoke as part of the Thursday Morning Music Club concert series. He was expected to play on March 6, 1959 but had to cancel to have finger surgery. Cliburn kept his commitment, though, eventually performing in Roanoke on March 18, 1960 at the American Theater.
Only 25 at the time, he received the sort of giddy coverage you might expect for Taylor Swift today. Roanoke Times reviewer George Kegley called the 1960 concert “near flawless” and added that Cliburn’s “shock of wavy hair remained intact through all his exertions.”
Fifteen years later, on March 10, 1975, he performed at the Roanoke Civic Center with the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in a show that sold out a couple months prior. Specifically, he played Brahms’ “Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat.” The newspaper cranked out feature stories, interviewing his mother, who traveled with him, and chronicling his trip to Roanoke and his stay here. (Notoriously absent-minded, he flooded his room in the Hotel Roanoke when he left the water in the bathtub running while practicing.)
More about Cliburn below, from the Associated Press.
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Van Cliburn, the internationally celebrated pianist whose triumph at a 1958 Moscow competition helped thaw the Cold War and launched a spectacular career that made him the rare classical musician to enjoy rock-star status, died Wednesday after a fight with bone cancer. He was 78. … Cliburn skyrocketed to fame when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at age 23 in 1958, six months after the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik embarrassed the U.S. and propelled the world into the space age. He triumphantly returned to a New York City ticker tape parade — the first ever for a classical musician — and a Time magazine cover proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”