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#2612 - Friday, October 13, 2006 - Editor: Jerry Katz

Video of Van Cliburn executing Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 by Franz Liszt:      

photo: Van Cliburn

Throughout his life, spirituality has struck a chord with Cliburn

Special to the Star-Telegram

Van Cliburn is one of the world's best-known concert pianists. What isn't so well known is the vital role faith plays in his storied career.

He prays before every performance. And classical music, he says, has a touch of the divine.

"Great music is the breath of God," he said. "It's eternal."

Dressed in his trademark black suit and muted tie, Cliburn talked of prayer, religion and the spiritual heritage left to him by his parents during a recent lengthy interview at his Westover Hills mansion.

"I don't know how people live without prayer," Cliburn said. "You know everybody that has ever lived has problems. Life is sometimes dysfunctional. I've had so many healings and situations in my life when it seems like miraculously things work out and you are just so grateful."

His beloved mother and first piano teacher, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, always referred to his talent as a gift from God. She died in 1994, and today, Cliburn and many of his friends are celebrating what would have been her 110th birthday.

"We're all saying, 'Happy birthday, Rildia Bee,'" Cliburn said.

When he was a child, Cliburn's parents presented him with a little plaque that proclaimed "Prayer Changes Things."

Cliburn took it to heart.

Prayer and faith have been stabilizing forces, he said, through the highs and lows of life.

Cliburn needed some steadying in 1958, when he burst onto the world scene like a rocket. He traveled to Moscow during the height of America's Cold War with the Soviet Union and won the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. It was a time when the Soviets were proclaiming their cultural superiority. Also, the Soviets had recently launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, causing alarm that America was losing the space race. After Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky competition, Moscow radio labeled him "the American Sputnik developed in secret."

Cliburn, then 23, returned to the United States as a hero. He was greeted in New York by a ticker-tape parade, the first ever to honor a classical musician. Time magazine put him on its May 19, 1958, cover proclaiming him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

While all the hero talk was swirling around him, Cliburn was just confused.

"I didn't know what was going on," he said.

After that heady time came two decades of concert performances throughout the world. Cliburn played for kings and queens and heads of state in Europe, Asia and South America. He has performed for every sitting president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Former President Harry S. Truman, a pianist himself who once performed a Mozart piece for Cliburn, usually attended when Cliburn performed in Kansas City, Mo.

One of Cliburn's heart-searching times came in the late 1970s, when he began feeling the physical and emotional toll of constant travel and the rigors of preparing for concerts. Cliburn, who first played the piano for the public in Shreveport, La., at age 4, took a much-publicized break that lasted 10 years. It gave him time to enjoy his Fort Worth home, travel, attend operas and other events, and socialize with friends.

People kept speculating when he might return to the concert stage. He finally did. The first step back into the spotlight was at the White House in 1987, when he performed at a state dinner President Ronald Reagan hosted for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

One of Cliburn's greatest satisfactions is that his friendship with the Russian people has endured into the 21st century.

In October 2004, he received Russia's highest civilian honor, the Order of Friendship, presented by Russian President Vladimir Putin. During that time, Cliburn dedicated a concert to more than 300 children and adults killed the month before at a school in the Russian town of Beslan. The casualties occurred during efforts to free hostages held by Muslim Chechen rebels.

President Bush, whom Cliburn has visited both at the White House and at the president's ranch in Crawford, awarded him the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2003. In 2001, Bush and first lady Laura Bush hosted a dinner at which Cliburn received the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement. Cliburn holds honorary doctorates from Baylor University, Texas Christian University, the Moscow Conservatory and many other schools.

After the interview, Cliburn gave a tour of his 17-acre estate, which includes two rose gardens and a seating area overlooking Westover Hills with the Fort Worth skyline in the distance. His home is filled with antiques, paintings and mementos collected in his world travels. Still, Cliburn keeps an understated attitude about his accomplishments.

"I've never been impressed with myself or anything I ever did," he said. "I always thought it could have been better."

Cliburn, at 72, still plays a limited number of concerts, which usually are sold out. He also keeps an adventurous spirit. For example, he recently appeared in a television soap opera, The Young and the Restless.

Closer to home, he's helping Broadway Baptist Church, where he is a member, celebrate the 10th anniversary of the $2.5 million Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn organ, dedicated to her before her death. It is Texas' largest pipe organ and the largest organ in the French tradition in the world. The second largest is in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

"It thrilled my mother when the deacons came out and said they had voted to name the organ for her," Cliburn said. "It meant so much to her that people loved her that much. And it thrilled me."

Cliburn, who was born in Shreveport, La., was baptized at age 8 at Shreveport's First Baptist Church. As a child, he helped his mother run a riverside mission in that city. Later, he was a member of First Baptist Church of Kilgore, where he made some early public piano performances. When he moved to New York City to study at the Juilliard School, he became a member of the Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan.

His father, who always called Cliburn "Sonny Boy," at first wanted his son to become a medical missionary, Cliburn said. But when the youthful Cliburn's musical gifts surfaced, his father fully supported his son's ambition to be a concert pianist.

Although he didn't become a missionary, Cliburn is an evangelist of sorts.

At every opportunity, he preaches the enriching values of classical music. The quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, begun in 1962, nurtures young talent and has become one of the world's premier piano competitions.

"The reason the Cliburn competition is so successful are the people of Fort Worth," he said. "We have so many piano aficionados here. And they are so supportive of the young people who come here. We've had people come out of the audience and offer to finance the debuts of our participants."

When he goes back to New York, where he lived for many years, Cliburn tells his friends how much he loves Fort Worth. He said: "I tell them, after all, our namesake, Gen. William Jenkins Worth, is buried in Manhattan on 24th Street."

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