Renowned pianist Van Cliburn dies at 78

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FORT WORTH, Texas -- For a time in Cold War America, Van Cliburn had all the trappings of a rock star: sold-out concerts, adoring, out-of-control fans and a name recognized worldwide. He even got a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

And he did it all with only a piano and some Tchaikovsky concertos.

The celebrated pianist played for every American president since Harry Truman, plus royalty and heads of state around the world. But he is best remembered for winning a 1958 piano competition in Moscow that helped thaw the icy rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Cliburn died yesterday at 78 after fighting bone cancer.

The young man from the small east Texas town of Kilgore was a baby-faced 23 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow just six months after the Soviets' launch of Sputnik embarrassed the United States and inaugurated the space race.

Cliburn returned to a hero's welcome and the ticker-tape parade -- the first ever for a classical musician. A Time magazine cover proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

The win also showed the power of the arts, creating unity despite the tension between the superpowers. Music-loving Soviets clamored to see him perform. Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly gave the go-ahead for the judges to honor a foreigner: "Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize."

In the years that followed, Cliburn's popularity soared. He sold out concerts and caused riots when he was spotted in public. Time magazine's 1958 cover story quoted a friend as saying Cliburn could become "the first man in history to be a Horowitz, Liberace and Presley all rolled into one."

Cliburn, who started winning piano competitions at age 12 and attended the Juilliard School at 17, also used his skill and fame to help other young musicians through the Van Cliburn International Music Competition, held every four years.

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"Since we know that classical music is timeless and everlasting, it is precisely the eternal verities inherent in classical music that remain a spiritual beacon for people all over the world," Cliburn once said.

President George W. Bush presented Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation's highest civilian honor -- in 2003. The following year, he received the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Cliburn stopped touring in 1978, emerging in 1987, when he played at a state dinner at the White House during the historic visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev leaped from his seat to give the pianist a bear-hug and kisses on the cheeks.

Nancy Reagan, then the first lady, has called that night one of the greatest moments of her husband's presidency.

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