It may be hard to believe today, but in 1958, a piano concert was as big on the international news pages of the world as the 1980 U.S.-Russia Olympic semifinal hockey game would be decades later. That’s when a kid from Kilgore, Texas, named Van Cliburn attended the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition — named for the great Russian composer, and intended as a display of the prowess in the arts of the Soviet Union — and walked away with the top prize, following an eight-minute ovation.
The impact was huge — a Time magazine cover; a ticker-tape parade in New York City — and Cliburn has been a giant in classical music since then. He now lends his name to his own piano competition, which has become one of the most celebrated and revered events of its kind in the world.
The Tchaikovsky was 53 years ago, but apparently, it’s never too late to go back. Monday, the gay piano virtuoso boarded a plane for Moscow, returning to the competition for the first time since his historic win. (He’s visited Russia many times over the years, but never returned to the competition.)
I can hardly imagine what it was like, at the height of the Cold War, for a 23-year-old Texan to travel all that way barely six months after the launch of Sputnik, which ratcheted up hostilities and the space race between the sole superpowers of the day, as the eyes of the world looked on. Just to go there was heroic; to perform, and perform well, superhuman; to win it … well, it’s legend. For Cliburn to return now — and to be a Russian in the room when he takes to the stage for the first time in more than a half-century? Well, it gives me goosebumps.
Congrats to Van Cliburn.
See Van Cliburn receive an award from President Barack Obama here.