Pianist Van Cliburn honored with the National Medal of Arts

WASHINGTON — It was another crescendo in the life of pianist Van Cliburn, entering the ornate East Room of the White House Wednesday with the best representatives of American arts and letters, and receiving another accolade from another U.S. president – the 2010 National Medal of Arts.

Cliburn, the Fort Worth-based pianist who first wowed the world more than 50 years ago, was one of 20 leading figures in the arts and humanities to receive the nation’s highest cultural award from President Barack Obama.

“One of the great joys of being president is getting a chance to pay tribute to the artists and authors, the poets and performers, who have touched our hearts and opened our minds -- or, in the case of Quincy Jones and James Taylor, set the mood,” said Obama to laughter.

He later went on to say “And I speak personally here because there are people here whose books or poetry or works of history shaped me. . . The fact is that works of art, literature, works of history, they speak to our condition and they affirm our desire for something more and something better.”

As the ram-rod straight Cliburn, 76, approached the podium, a smiling Obama greeted the taller Texan and exchanged a few words with him. The president placed the medal with a purple ribbon around Cliburn’s neck and a military aide read the citation: “The 2010 National Medal of Arts to Van Cliburn for his contributions as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music, and as a persuasive ambassador for American culture. Since his historic 1958 victory at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Mr. Cliburn has reached across political frontiers with the universal message of beautiful music.”

“It was such a lovely service,” Cliburn afterwards told the Star-Telegram. “They were so nice, very sweet, very kind. I was so thrilled.”

Cliburn knew the president and first lady from a performance he gave with the Chicago Symphony in July 2005 when Obama was a U.S. senator from Illinois. Asked how many presidents he had performed for, he said, “Every one, every one since Eisenhower.” The 10 presidents Cliburn has performed for: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.

First lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Jill Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., were in the audience of about 200 people celebrating the honorees.

Accompanying Cliburn from Fort Worth: his long time companion Tommy Smith and Van Cliburn Foundation board members Alann Sampson and Marsha Kleinheinz.

“It’s so appropriate for our president to express our country’s gratitude to Van,” said Sampson.

Producer and musician Quincy Jones, a fellow Kennedy Center Honors winner with Cliburn in 2001, was also honored Wednesday and Cliburn said they “reminisced” about that gala.

But for Cliburn, who also received the Medal of Freedom award at the White House from President George W. Bush in 2003, the recognition Wednesday had a special cache.

Asked how he would rank the award among those he’s received, Cliburn said, “extremely high, when your government, your president extends you an accolade for what you’ve been able to do.”

“Our president,” he said, “is not only the head of the government, but is our head of state.”

Cliburn’s victory at the Tchaikovsky Competition at the height of the Cold War galvanized the United States and ever since then Cliburn has used his talent and success to foster international understanding with the Russian government and people.