"Ah swear to goodness, ah just can't believe all this is happenin' to li'l ole Van Cliburn from the piney woods of East Texas!" Most everybody agreed with Van. Through a rare combination of sheer talent, the tension of the cold war and the thunderous amplifier of modern publicity, the long-legged 23-year-old winner of Moscow's International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition (TIME, April 21) had overnight become the object of the most explosive single outpouring of popular acclaim ever accorded a U.S. musician. Next week Manhattan will give him a national hero's welcome back to the U.S. with a ticker-tape parade up Broadway. He will go to Washington to be received by the President of the U.S. His first post-Russia concert (in which he will repeat his Moscow prizewinning pieces: Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1, Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3) has swamped Carnegie Hall with the heaviest demand for tickets in all its glittering history.
As Van mops up his one-Texan conquest of the Soviet Union this week, the Russians have to look back a century for a comparable triumph. That was when Franz Liszt, history's most vaunted piano virtuoso (and the teacher of the man who taught Van's first teacherhis mother), made his debut in St. Petersburg. Wearing Pope Pius IX's Order of the Golden Spur over his white cravat, his immaculate dress coat clanking with his other medals, his "shapely white hands" encased in doeskin gloves, he appeared, tossing his shoulder-length blond hair, before an audience of 3,000, who greeted him with "thunderous applause such as had not been heard in Russia for over a century." The pianist who has been evoking that sort of reception for a month from Riga to Kiev is a far cry from the saturnine dandy with the "Florentine profile." Van Cliburn is a gangling (6 ft. 4 in., 165 Ibs.), snub-nosed, mop-haired boy out of Kilgore, as Texan as pecan pie. Instead of medals, he carried a well-thumbed Bible; instead of doeskin gloves, a single dress shirt, a plastic wing collar given to him by a friend, a ratty grey Shetland sweater that often showed under his dress jacket when he took his bows.
Maverick. In the tradition-filigreed world of highbrow music, the Texas longhair is a maverick who conforms to nobody's image of a virtuoso. His family has been American on both sides for at least four generations. His pale baby face, with its cornflower-blue eyes beneath a tangle of yellow hair, might suggest a choir boywhich he has been. He is exuberantly gregarious, unsophisticated and, on the surface at least, totally untempera-mental. Former Cincinnati Symphony Conductor Thor Johnson recalls that once, in an orchestral tutti during the rehearsal of a concerto, Van rose from the keyboard and walked out. "I called a halt to the music," says Johnson, "and wondered what we could have done to upset the kid." Just then Van looked back over his shoulder from the wings and drawled: "Go right ahead. Ah'm just goin' to the slot machine for a candy bar." He can be considerate to a fault. In Moscow, one of his American friends had to lock him into his hotel room before he dropped from exhaustion receiving the glad-handers and autograph seekers who streamed in all through the night.