As with most master musicians, Van Cliburn began early; his mom had him hitting the keys at age 3 and by the time he was 12, the kid was claiming victory in a statewide piano competition. At 17, he was attending Julliard and studying under Rosina Lhévinne, who schooled him in the tradition of the great Russian romanticists. At age 20, Cliburn won the prestigious Levintritt Award and made his Carnegie Hall debut.
But what he's most remembered and celebrated for is the recognition he received in Moscow, where, in 1958, at the height of the Cold War, he won the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition despite the fact that the event was designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority. Cliburn's finale performances of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 allegedly earned him a standing ovation that lasted eight minutes, and he was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City when he returned to the States. Soon enough, he signed a contract with RCA Victor and his subsequent recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was the first classical album to sell a million copies. The number currently stands at 3 million.
At 72, Van Cliburn continues to give a limited number of performances and this Monday evening, Bay area folks are blessed with the opportunity to see him in action playing what is now considered to be his signature piece: Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1. Afterward, he is joined by The Florida Orchestra for a presentation of Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibition; Stefan Sanderling conducts.
Van Cliburn Plays Tchaikovsky, 8 p.m. Mon., Sept. 25, Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S., St. Petersburg, $75-$125 ($150 tickets include entry to a pre-concert reception), 727-892-5767, www.floridaorchestra.org.