April 13, 2008 -- Which other classical music titans belong in the same league as Cliburn?

Posted 3:22pm on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012

Note: This story originally appeared in the Star-Telegram on April 13, 2008, in a special section about the 50th anniversary of Van Cliburn's Tchaikovsky competition victory in Moscow.

A ticker-tape parade, the cover of Time, the first classical musician to sell a million albums: With his win at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition, Van Cliburn entered a new stratosphere of superstardom. Here's a brief lesson from Music History 101 on the company he keeps -- a dozen other classical musicians who crossed over to capture the public's imagination.

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840): The first famous "virtuoso" musician, Paganini made his debut on the violin at age 9. His playing was so brilliant, so difficult, so awe-inspiring, it was rumored that he was in league with the devil.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886): The first great virtuoso pianist and the man who coined the term "recital," Liszt was a rock star of the 19th century. Liszt looked the part of the tortured romantic -- long hair, shabby dress -- and played like a demon. Women swooned at his performances. Really.

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957): One of the greatest conductors of the 20th century got his big break as a 19-year-old cellist. When the regular conductor didn't show up, Toscanini jumped up and took up the baton. The NBC Orchestra was created for him, and he became a household name with TV and radio performances from 1937 to 1954.

Enrico Caruso (1873-1921): Perhaps the best-known, most-loved singer of his day, this tenor was one of the first artists to realize the potential of then-new recording technology. His off-stage exploits were also well-known, including escaping from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and going to trial for goosing a woman at a zoo.

Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987): He toured Europe as a violin prodigy and became a sensation after his Carnegie Hall debut at age 16. World tours followed. Fans in New York City once rioted when they couldn't get tickets. He also was a frequent punch line in Woody Allen movies, i.e., "She's the Heifetz of the harmonica!"

Marian Anderson (1897?-1993): The African-American opera star sang for several presidents. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn't allow Anderson to use its hall for a concert in Washington, D.C., the government allowed her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. Her concert, on Easter morning, drew a crowd of 75,000 and was broadcast to millions via radio.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): The great American conductor made his debut at the helm of the New York Philharmonic by filling in for a sick colleague on short notice -- and the next day made the front page of The New York Times. He became known to the nation through myriad TV appearances, particularly his series of Young People's Concerts. As a composer, he conquered Broadway with several scores, most notably West Side Story.

Maria Callas (1923-1977): The winner of several talent shows as a child (shades of American Idol), Callas grew up to be one of the great opera singers -- she was once called "the definition of a diva." She survived the Nazi occupation of Greece, a domineering mother and tabloid-ish attention to her dramatic weight loss.

Beverly Sills (1929-2007): Dubbed "America's Queen of Opera" by Time magazine, Sills was the anti-diva. Bubbly and down-to-earth, she was in demand on the TV talk-show circuit. She also appeared with the Muppets and with Carol Burnett.

Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007): The most popular tenor since Caruso, Pavarotti was a master of marketing. He starred in a movie, he gave concerts on TV, and he sang with Bono and Liza Minnelli. In 1990, he performed at the World Cup with a couple of other tenors and their 1994 album became the bestselling classical album of all time.

Itzhak Perlman (born 1945): A musical phenom in his native Israel, Perlman was already playing the violin when he was stricken with polio at age 4. He came to the U.S. at 13, to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. That's him playing on the soundtrack to Schindler's List.

Yo-Yo Ma (born 1955): One of the greatest cellists of modern times, Ma likes to mix it up with jazz, bluegrass, tango and folk tunes. He has performed for movie soundtracks ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Memoirs of a Geisha) and has appeared on Sesame Street and The West Wing.


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