On a spring day in 1958, a gangling young man perched atop the back seat of an open Chrysler Imperial as it rolled down 5th Avenue in New York. Confetti and ticker tape swirled down. People packed the sidewalks and strained to catch a glimpse of him. He was not a visiting head of state, or a military hero, or a sports luminary. He was an American, he was a pianist and he had just won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
The Tchaikovsky Competition was conceived as a demonstration of Soviet cultural superiority at the height of the cold war, a grand musical flourish after the launching of Sputnik a few months earlier. That an American from Texas had won caused a world-wide sensation. Overnight, everyone with a radio or newspaper or television knew about Van Cliburn.
Van Cliburn rides in a ticker tape parade in his honor after winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. Archival photo
The kudos and craziness that come with super star status followed Van Cliburn’s big win. His picture was on the cover of Time Magazine. His debut recording was the first classical album to go platinum. Every major orchestra and concert hall between Los Angeles and Moscow vied to book him. A near riot erupted when someone spotted him shopping in a Philadelphia department store.
The proud folks back in Texas wanted to honor him in a big way. But how do you adequately honor a guy who already has the world at his feet? The answer was the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
A quadrennial event first held in Fort Worth in 1962, the Cliburn Competition now equals the Tchaikovsky in prestige and, like its Moscow counterpart, has launched careers for some and shattered the hopes of others.
For many years, the Los Alamos Concert Association has been designated a “preferred presenter” by the Cliburn Organization. This gives LACA first crack at featuring Cliburn medalists on its concert series. That status also allows LACA to send a representative to the competition.
Editor’s note: Beginning today, check the Los Alamos Daily Post for daily reports from the event that has been called the Piano Olympics.