Fans from as far as Moscow pay respects to Van Cliburn

Posted Saturday, Mar. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The funeral service for Van Cliburn will be at 3 p.m. Sunday at Broadway Baptist Church, 305 W Broadway Avenue in Fort Worth.

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FORT WORTH -- The east side of the church was in breezy shadow by that time of day, making a chilly afternoon even more so. But Fort Worth sisters Linda Weber and Brenda Cole didn't seem to notice, watching Saturday from a few yards away as pallbearers carried the brown wooden casket of Van Cliburn into Broadway Baptist.

"What an opportunity to experience this moment in history," Weber, herself a pianist and a Cliburn admirer for decades, said when the casket had been taken inside. "He's here. I'm right next to him, one of my classical piano heroes. What a simple casket. That's fitting because he was such a humble man."

Her sister shared a different thought.

"I'm sad," Cole said.

It was a day that brought forth such a range of feelings. Hundreds of people came from as far away as Moscow to pay their respects to Cliburn, 78, a cultural icon since his 1958 stunning triumph in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He died Wednesday at his Westover Hills home from bone cancer.

His funeral at Broadway Baptist on Sunday will befit an enormously revered, international musical celebrity. Former President George W. Bush and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are scheduled to speak.

The Fort Worth Symphony will perform a movement of a Rachmaninoff concerto. A choir of nearly 300 has been assembled for a service expected to stretch toward two hours.

Saturday's visitation was a quieter time, conducive to grateful remembrance. Cliburn's casket sat near the altar, covered in a white pall. His recorded music played softly in the sanctuary.

Cliburn's survivor, longtime friend and manager Thomas L. Smith, greeted the steady procession of mourners as they filed by the casket. Among the many floral arrangements was one from Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, red roses in the shape of a heart.

But most of those who came Saturday were not famous at all.

"I wanted to pay my respects, because I knew tomorrow this place would be jammed," said John David Ford, a classical music lover from Roanoke.

Like many others Saturday, Ford remembered Cliburn's unfailing kindness when meeting his fans. Several years ago, Ford saw the virtuoso pianist at a Bass Hall ballet performance and decided to approach him.

"I went up and shook his hand," Ford said. "He was so gracious. It is a very rare thing that someone that talented would also be that humble. He was that talented."

Carolyn Curtis has lived across the nation, and traveled internationally, but wherever she went, when she mentioned her hometown was Fort Worth, the name of Cliburn was likely to come up, she said.

"I just had to come pay my respects to someone who brought the city, and really the country, so much pride," Curtis said. "He balanced the Cowtown and cultural dichotomy that's in this city and he did it with such grace."

Ron DeFord, a fixture at the prestigious international piano competition bearing Cliburn's name, said he woke up feeling under the weather Saturday morning, but made the trip from his Austin home anyway.

"I thought, 'I really can't not come up for this, knowing Van all these years, the impact he had on my life, getting me hooked on classical music," DeFord said. "I simply had to come and give him one last tribute. He was a sweet gentle man who will be remembered that way."

Katia Skanavi, a finalist in the 1997 Cliburn International Piano Competition, traveled from Moscow, arriving just before the visitation. Skanavi, who has enjoyed a successful performing career since her competition success, paid her respects with her 9-year-old daughter, Sacha.

"I think it is very important to be here, not only as a pianist and a prize winner, but as a Russian," Skanavi said. Cliburn's Tchaikovsky competition triumph came at the height of the Cold War. His artistry and personality won over the Russian people, and the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev.

"My parents have their own stories of trying to hear him play when he came," Skanavi said. "He means a lot to Russia. He means a lot to the whole world of classical music.

"He always handled his position as a servant, even though he was an icon," she said. "He served classical music. He served the people of Fort Worth. He really used his fame in the best way, an incredibly noble and decent man. For my daughter, this will be a memory."

Des Taylor, who also traveled from Austin, recounted a different memory. He was a teen-ager in 1958, attending Sunday evening services at the First Baptist Church in the East Texas town of Kilgore, where Cliburn grew up.

That night, Cliburn's parents were sitting in a pew a few yards away, Taylor said, when a church secretary whispered something to the pastor.

Then, the pastor said he had an announcement to make.

"CBS News had just called and said that Van had won the Tchaikovsky Competition," Taylor said. "His parents didn't know until then, either. The reaction was one of joy for the Cliburn family, and the rest is history. I was then only a youngster, but it was one of the highlights of my life."

In the decades to come, whenever the two saw each other, Cliburn called Taylor by name, he said.

"It's hard to describe the emotions of a life so rich, a life lived from his early years on a world stage," Taylor said. "He was a person who never lost touch with his grass roots, with Texas, with Kilgore, with his friends."

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

Twitter: @tsmadigan

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