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Van Cliburn: A piano virtuoso who transcended Cold War (+video)

Van Cliburn passed away Wednesday at his Texas home. Van Cliburn, a Grammy award-winning classical pianist, was a star in both the US and Russia.

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Cliburn was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La., the son of oilman Harvey Cliburn Sr. and Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn. At age 3, he began studying piano with his mother, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with a pupil of the great 19th century Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt.

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The family moved back to Kilgore, Texas, within a few years of his birth.

Cliburn won his first Texas competition when he was 12, and two years later he played in Carnegie Hall as the winner of the National Music Festival Award.

At 17, Cliburn attended the Juilliard School in New York, where fellow students marveled at his marathon practice sessions that stretched until 3 a.m. He studied under the famed Russian-born pianist Rosina Lhevinne.

Between 1952 and 1958, he won all but one competition he entered, including the G.B. Dealey Award from the Dallas Symphony, the Kosciusko Foundation Chopin Scholarship and the prestigious Leventritt. By age 20, he had played with the New York Philharmonic and the symphonies of most major cities.

Cliburn's career seemed ready to take off until his name came up for the draft. Cliburn had to cancel all shows but was eventually excused from duty due to chronic nosebleeds.

Over the next few years, Cliburn's international popularity continued as he recorded pieces ranging from Mozart to a concerto by American Edward McDowell. Still, having been trained by arguably the best Russian teachers in the world, Cliburn's heart was Russian, with the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos.

After 1990, Cliburn toured Japan numerous times and performed throughout the United States. He was in the midst of a 16-city US tour in 1994 when his mother died at age 97.

Cliburn made his home in Fort Worth, where in 1998 he appeared at the opening of the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, both in recital and as soloist with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. He endowed scholarships at many schools, including Juilliard, which gave him an honorary doctorate, and the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories.

In December 2001, Cliburn was presented with the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors Medallion at the televised tribute held in Washington.

Until only recently, Cliburn practiced daily and performed limited engagements.

Cliburn is survived by his manager and longtime friend, Thomas L. Smith.

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