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February 2013
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Remembering Van Cliburn

Young Van Cliburn

Young Van Cliburn

July 12, 1934 – February 27, 2013

Here’s one reflection by pianist Jorge Federico Osorio:

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It is with great sadness that WFMT marks the passing of one of America’s great cultural icons: pianist Van Cliburn. It was 55 years ago that the soft-spoken Texan rocketed to international stardom, winning the gold medal at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition at the height of the Cold War. He’s since been a much-loved artist and advocate for young pianists through the piano competition that bears his name, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Here are some WFMT listener remembrances. Share your story ideas, questions or comments below.

I heard you were asking for stories about Van Cliburn. I danced the Virginia Reel with him!!! In 1961, I was at Interlochen Music Camp, enrolled in the University Division through U of Michigan. Van Cliburn was there performing a concert with the high school symphony orchestra. After the concert, the university division invited him to a little party in our headquarters down by the lakefront. We decided to dance the Virginia Reel and he danced with us. Lots of fun that day!

L. Malnekoff

Another Interlochen story

In the summer of 1964 I was accompanying in the voice department at Interlochen. Our important guest of the summer was Van Cliburn, who was treated like rock stars are now. He graciously, even enjoyably, handed out autographs and chatted with students. He also played concerts, I think twice. He was very gracious, and a magnificent pianist!

C. Speake

The summer of 1958, I drove into NYC to hear Van Cliburn play at Lewisohn Stadium, with the Stadium Symphony Ocrhestra (NYP). I was a junior in high school. There were no advanced ticket sales in those days and the lines went around the block — the whole block! I didn’t get into the concert, but I was standing right next to Cliburn’s limo when it pulled up to the stage door. The limo door opened and I could look right in at him, sitting there, rubbing his hands together. He got out, waved and went inside. I still have the original LP and a few re-issues.


When I was a little girl I often said that I would marry either Van Cliburn or Jacques Cousteau. I thought Van was dreamy and I loved how he played the piano. I used to put his album on and sit at the piano and try to play along with him – which, of course, I could NOT do – but I did throw my head around dramatically and lift my hands up high at the end with a flourish.


I attended a Van Cliburn concert at Orchestra Hall (Reiner conducting) in spring 1963. It was an electrifying performance (for me, at least) and memorable because it was my graduation year from Northwestern University. It was a gift from a fraternity brother, also a June 1963 graduate. He was a journalism major and had lined up a job as a science writer for the Chicago Tribune. I was off to France to study history. It was the last time that we spent time together, The fates (and our jobs) took us in different directions.

W. Hoisington

I was a young piano student studying with Sister Ann Celeen at Holy Angels Grade School in Gary and I remember hearing Van Cliburn on television. It was perhaps the Ed Sullivan show and he played the Chopin Polonaise, opus 53. It was masterful and inspiring.

I had been practicing the Chopin Military Polonaise on page 32 in my Chopin book, and Van Cliburn was playing the Polonaise on page 36 — the next piece in the book. Immediately I began to practice the opus 53. He truly inspired me that day.

J. Hirsch

Van Cliburn….A friend and I got 4th row tickets for a Cliburn concert at Wheaton college in the 70’s….keyboard site line. During a selection playing a piece in f#, the F# above middle C came off. He finished that movement, stood up and showed the F# to the audience. With laughter and roar of approval, the technician came on the stage, fixed it, and after a short intermission Cliburn returned. Don’t remember the titles or much else, but he was just laughing as he was holding up the key.

S. Minarik

I was a freshman at Wheaton College and Van Cliburn came to perform in one of the Artist Series concerts in Edman Chapel (this would have been 1969 or 1970) It was, of course a thrilling evening of beautiful music. While reading the review of the concert in the Tribune the next morning my dad, who had attended the concert with me, saw that apparently one of the keys on the Steinway became loose during one of the pieces and Van Cliburn seamlessly transposed (mid-piece) to a key which would not require using that particular piano key. Only his mother, who was in the audience and to whom the reviewer allegedly spoke, knew what was happening. I never checked out the story with the piano dept at Wheaton. I’ve often wished I did!

C. Kistler

I first heard his recording of the Brahms” 2nd Piano Concerto the summer before I was starting college as a piano major. In the spring of 1994 I met Van Cliburn at the book signing for his biography by Howard Reich. I have a cherished photo taken that day, as well as, the signed LP recording and piano score of the Brahms. For our June anniversary that same year, my husband, Ken, surprised me with front row tickets for the Grant Park concert when Van Cliburn played the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. I think he had a fondness for Chicago especially with his good friends, the Paul Harvey family, living here. The Rachmaninoff 3rd, as well as, the Brahms 2nd, are my favorite Cliburn recordings.

R. Jandes

Van Cliburn came on stage, stepped to the footlights, and asked the audience not to applaud after his first number, in order to observe a moment of silence in tribute to the memory of Dimitri Mitropoulos, who had died earlier that day. It was November 2, 1960, at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, where I was a freshman at the University of Michigan. Mr. Cliburn was 26 years old, barely two years after his Moscow triumph.

D. Passman

I certainly knew about Van Cliburn wining the piano competition- everybody did, even little kids whe were just taking piano lessons. Ten years later when I was in college, my roomate’s fiance had an extra ticket to hear Van Cliburn play in St Louis. I don’t remember which pieces he did, but it was my first concert hall experience and , other than my mother playing at home, my first exposure to live classical music.I was hooked. 45 years later and I am still here.

P. Harman

I was present at the two concerts that Cliburn gave in Grant Park. The first was immediately after his Moscow triumph and the second was on the 6oth Anniversary of the festival. It always mystified me how why and how his opening chords of the Tshaikowsky First was so absolutely unique. The obituary in the New York Times made that clear with their movie of him in Moscow during his prize winning concert. Not only were his hands big, but more importantly, he banged them sraight down on the piano. Mystery solved.

L. Keith

I am 64 years old. When I was in 7th grade I took a music appreciation class for a semester. I don’t know that much about Van Cliburn, but during the class we listened and discussed all aspects of 3 pieces of music, West Side Story, New World Symphony, and The Van Cliburn version of the Piano Concerto in Bb minor that won the 1st Tchaikowsky competition in Moscow. I still love all 3 pieces a music, but the only one that I still have in my collection and that I listen to fairly regularly is Van Cliburn. I love the music and the passion with which it’s played. I’ve heard many other musicians play it but none compare to Van Cliburn. I will definitely listen to it sometime today. Good bye dear friend.

W. Huhn

I was attending Western Illinois University in 1970 when Van Cliburn gave a concert there. I don’t remember much about the concert exvept that afterwards my friend with whom I attended the concert suggested we try for an autograph. Some how I got pushed to the front of the crowd and had my program autographed. I still have it somewhere!

J. Miller

I have three wonderful memories of Van Cliburn:  When he played in Grant Park 54 years ago – I was only 14 then; when he made an appearance at the old Rose Records Store on Wabash, where he, most graciously, autographed all 18 CDs that I have of music he had recorded and his autobiography; and when he appeared at Ravinia, I believe, in the summer of 2005 playing the Grieg op. 16.
R I P Mr. Cliburn.

J. Rodriguez

In the summer of 1961 I attended the Interlochen Summer Camp playing bassoon with the Michigan’s state orchestra.  Mr. Van Cliburn was at the camp at the same time we were there.  As I walked down the walk on my way to practices, I passed by the cottage that he was either practicing in or staying in.  It had large windows on the front that opened  out to the walk way.  A number of times he was sitting right by the windows at his piano playing away.  I was so in awe of his music that I just stood there listening, even risking being late for practice.

M. Steiner

  • Joyce Stern

    In the summer of l960, I shared the elevator to my LaSalle Street office with a man who asked if
    I liked Van Cliburn. When I said yes, he said he would give me two tickets for that night’s performance at The Lyric Opera House. My fiancee came with me and we were delighted when the usher took us to the orchestra pit and we sat there to hear the most marvelous performance. What a wonderful memory.

  • Steven Stine

    My father’s mother’s sister (Frances Gertz née Caplan) was a prominent socialite and philanthropist in Kilgore, Texas. She was an early patron of Van Cliburn, who supported and promoted him before he became famous. Once in the early 1960s – I would have been in junior high school at the time – my grandparents took me to a Van Cliburn concert at Ravinia. Needless to say, his performance was wonderful. After the show, we went backstage and met him. I remember he was gracious, charming, modest, soft-spoken, handsome, and very tall. He spoke with deep affection of my great Aunt Frances.

  • David Cloud

    I’ve been quite touched to listen to accounts of the generosity and graciousness of Van Cliburn.

    In 1972, at a small college in Iowa, I chatted with a young woman, a student whom had been spent an evening in the company of Van Cliburn at a small gathering hosted by friends of his on the college faculty.

    Her strongest impression of the great artist was of lonelines which she thought to be the result of the immense demands on him in the public spotlight.

    How remarkable, then, that he touched so many persons over such a span of decades with warmth, kindness, and generosity of spirit.

    Thank you.

  • In 1958 I lived in Austin, Texas, at 13 already a lover of “Classical” acoustic music. It was so exciting to have a Texan win the International Tchaikovskii Competition, the first Texan (if not the first American)to do so. Of course I followed his radio, LP and live performances whenever possible.

    Over ten years ago Mr. Cliburn signed LPs at a music store in Chicago’s Loop (Wabash Ave.) I told
    him then that I felt his solo virtuosity, along with his creating the Cliburn Piano Competition and his international involvements really brought “serious” music to Texas. He demurred, as his mother, a pupil of a Liszt pupil, etc., had taught him first. There were symphony orchestras in Texas in 1958, but not as renowned as today’s Dallas Symphony, for example. (The previous commenter, Steven Stine, is part of a rare, culturally aware, philanthropic family, which we were grateful to have there–thanks, Steve!)

    Van Cliburn had health problems which caused him to concentrate on studio recording later in his career. We were blessed to have him in our lifetimes. May “Angels sing thee to the rest”,

  • Larry Jones

    As an almost 16 year old in the summer of 1960, I was fortunate to travel in Europe with my family, and the highlight was about a week spent in Moscow, where my father attended a scientific meeting. Word spread that the US embassy would host a party for Americans on July 4, so we went, and I at least, was surprised by the appearance of Van Cliburn who played a piece or two. I don’t remember what he played, but being a stranger in a strange land, among other Americans, feeling very patriotic and hearing the great Van Cliburn play was food for a memory I cherish today.

  • Yana Nedvetsky

    Bravo! I listened from all the way in Belgium – Bravo, Iris!!!!