Patt Morrison

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Before there was Dudamel, there was Van Cliburn

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55918 full

Classical music doesn’t have a lot of rock stars. But when the Cold War was at its chilliest, along came this tall drink of water from Texas, ambling right into the belly of the red-menace beast and taming it.

Van Cliburn died on Wednesday. He was a master of the piano’s 88 keys, and he held the key to a triumphantly long and profitable musical career.

He might have become a basketball player; he was a coach’s dream, six feet four and skinny as a Panhandle fencepost. At the age of twelve, his hands spanned an octave and a half, and his repertoire spanned music’s entire romantic period.

His was the first classical album to go platinum -- it was his signature performance, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.

When he played that, a Russian composition, in Moscow, in 1958, those Commies stood up and applauded him for eight minutes – almost as long as the concerto itself.

Back when Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky competition, Americans had been moping for months because the Soviets beaten us into space with a cheeky little satellite, no bigger than a beachball, named Sputnik.

In 1980, the Americans had the hockey miracle on ice; in 1958 they had Cliburn’s miracle on the ivories. Amid the stare-downs and the saber-rattling of the Cold War, it was a chance for a little thawing of the political ice.

When Cliburn played, Russian girls swooned at the edge of the concert stage, the way American girls were doing for Elvis Presley. Moscow threw flowers at his feet. New York threw capitalist ticker tape, honoring Cliburn in a fashion usually reserved for astronauts and war heroes.

The man who presented the Texas kid with his prize was Dimitri Shostakovich, a giant of Russian music. It took a Soviet triumph to make Americans realize what a star they had in their midst.

That’s how it happened that even Americans who knew nothing of classical music, and were proud of it, came to know this kid, the one who’d beaten the Soviets at their own musical game. Time magazine put him on its cover. So did Pravda.

Years later, Cliburn said the Russians were so friendly they had had put him in mind of Texans -- his neighbors and friends in the state where he lived, in Fort Worth, among his rosebushes. The local paper said he was a night owl; he showed up at the pancake house late at night, wearing a suit, and on Sunday mornings, he’d slip into a back pew at the Baptist church.

Last year, before it was announced that he had bone cancer, he auctioned it all off – all the jewels, the silver, the antiques – and, most diplomatically, split the four million between the Juilliard School and the Moscow Conservatory.

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