In the vainglorious, self-absorbed age of the Kardashians, where one can become rich and famous simply for having no talent of any kind, the Van Cliburn-types exist in relative obscurity. Perhaps they want it that way, or perhaps they’re waiting for another renaissance, where genuine talent, wrought by years of practice and effort, will once again be valued, cherished and praised.
Van Cliburn, one of America’s iconic pianists, passed away yesterday at age 78, from advanced bone cancer. His story, his legacy are truly inspirational. His talents, recognized at a young age by his piano teacher mother, took him to New York where he studied at the famed Juilliard. In 1958, at age 23, he entered and won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He came home to a ticker tape parade in New York City; imagine that happening today for a similar honor. For the next 15 years, he was in the limelight, giving sold-out concerts, raising money for the Interlochen Arts Camp, and lending his name and tutelage to the famous quadrennial Van Cliburn Quadrennial Piano Competition, which has launched the careers of many young artists and teachers. You can view a brief summary of the life of this authentic American virtuoso in the video below from the Kennedy Center Honors of 2001.
Today, when our children are growing up with Dancing with the Stars and American Idol, where fame and fortune are awarded people who owe their livelihoods to being able to lip sync successfully, and strut scantily clad around a stage amidst exploding laser beams, the grace and elegance of a Van Cliburn appears lost to another age. But for those of us who remember that age, and who, too, spent hours practicing the piano for the inevitable piano recitals, we understand how the classics of centuries stir the soul, and the value of hard work, perseverance and discipline that carries us through the times we live in today.
R.I.P. Van Cliburn.