TCU Professor of Piano Tamás Ungár remembers renowned pianist Van Cliburn for making Fort Worth into Piano Town, USA.
Mr. Cliburn, who died Wednesday at 78 of bone cancer, contributed scholarships to many schools including the university’s School of Music.
“He was always regal, he was always somebody who was in control because he was so famous that he had the ability to understand what other people felt." Ungár said. "He was a real megastar and always appeared with great dignity."
He was born July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana to Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn and Harvey Lavan Cliburn, an executive at Magnolia Petroleum, according to the Cliburn Foundation website.
Mr. Cliburn moved to Kilgore, Texas, in his early childhood. He learned the art of piano from his mother until he enrolled in New York City’s Julliard School in 1951 at age 17.
At 23, Mr. Cliburn earned international recognition when he won first place at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, coincidently, during the climax of the Cold War.
Because of this accomplishment, Mr. Cliburn was featured on the cover of Time magazine as the “Texan who Conquered Russia,” and honored with a tickertape parade and ceremony in New York City, according to the Cliburn Foundation website.
After the Tchaikovsky Competition, Mr. Cliburn founded the Cliburn Foundation in honor of his mother in 1962 and the first Van Cliburn International Quadrennial Piano Competition was hosted in Fort Worth at TCU.
You You Zhang, a doctoral piano performance student who auditioned for the Van Cliburn Competition at TCU on Feb. 21, described event as one of the most prestigious and competitive competitions in the world.
“Every great pianist wants to be a part of his competition. I’m really honored. Being a part of the competition has been one of my dreams. This is probably the most important years of my life and I’m so sad I won’t be able to meet him,” Zhang said.
Director of the TCU School of Music Richard C. Gipson said that José Feghali, an artist-in-residence at the School of Music, got to know Mr. Cliburn personally after winning the Cliburn Competition in 1985.
Individuals with a connection to the Cliburn Competition have always held the School of Music’s artist-in-residency position.
“[Mr. Cliburn] is considered the greatest pianist from the United States and by many to be one of the greatest pianists in the world. Period,” Feghali said.
Among his accomplishments, Mr. Cliburn received more than 20 honorary doctorate degrees, and was adorned with many awards including the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 2011, according to the Cliburn Foundation website.
“It’s a shame that one can say that with his death, a great era of music and piano playing has come to a close,” Ungár said.
Dean of the College of Communication David Whillock said Mr. Cliburn had an immense effect on the university.
“He’s never been on faculty, but I think he’s always been here in spirit,” Whillock said.
Mr. Cliburn is remembered as sweet, humble, kind and legendary.
“Mr. Cliburn is survived by his friend of longstanding, Thomas L. Smith, millions of adoring fans and by the eternal beauty of classical music that remains within our individual and collective hearts and spirits,” Mary Lou Falcone, his publicist, said.
Visitation will be Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. and a funeral service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday. Both are to be held at Broadway Baptist Church.
To honor the memory of Van Cliburn, gifts may be sent to the O’Bryan Cliburn Cultural Foundation at P.O. Box 470219 Fort Worth, Texas 76147.