US pianist Van Cliburn, who won a world competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War and whose music transcended the standoff, died at age 78 on Wednesday, his foundation said.
Cliburn achieved worldwide fame by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, becoming an acclaimed cultural ambassador at a time of intense ideological competition and nuclear threats.
The 23-year-old Cliburn was welcomed back with a ticker-tape parade, and was seen as a US hero who had temporarily erased the humiliation of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch six months earlier by winning a competition intended to highlight Moscow’s cultural superiority.
However, rather than bask in patriotic glory, Cliburn invited Kirill Kondrashin, the Russian conductor who had performed with him in Moscow, to give concerts in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Philadelphia and Washington.
Cliburn followed the visit up with several tours of the Soviet Union from 1960 to 1972, performing in packed concert halls and bridging an ideological divide marked by an arms race, nuclear brinksmanship and proxy wars.
Cliburn performed for every US president since Harry Truman, including a recital attended by Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.
Then-US president George W. Bush presented Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, and US President Barack Obama honored him with a National Medal of Arts in 2011.
Cliburn was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on July 12, 1934, and began studying piano at age three with his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, a student of Arthur Friedman, who had studied under Franz Liszt.