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Dignitaries lead final farewell to legendary pianist Van Cliburn

Posted 8:42am on Monday, Mar. 04, 2013

FORT WORTH -- On Sunday, in the end, Van Cliburn had one more magnificent gift for Fort Worth and the world. The heartbreaking beauty and grandeur of his funeral service music is unlikely to be forgotten by anyone who heard it inside Broadway Baptist Church.

Cliburn, the legendary pianist who died Wednesday at 78, was warmly eulogized by former President George W. Bush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and friends from Fort Worth and around the world, who remembered both his historic talent, but also his humility and kindness. Statements by President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin were also read to those who filled the large Fort Worth sanctuary.

But from the first note of the processional hymn, as pallbearers brought Cliburn's flower-draped casket down the center aisle, the day's music was the truest tribute. Much of it was from his beloved Russia, where he rose to international renown in 1958 by winning the first Tchaikovsky International Competition at the height of the Cold War. From then until now, he has been deeply beloved by the Russian people.

Each hymn and piece of classical music performed Sunday otherwise had special meaning to Cliburn, the deeply religious man who for decades had quietly slipped in and out of Sunday Services at Broadway.

At the end of those services, Cliburn always embraced the pastor, the Rev. Brent Beasley, in one of his famous hugs, Beasley said during his homily.

"Beautiful. Beautiful," Cliburn would tell Beasley.

On Sunday, Beasley said he imagined Cliburn's embrace with God, and God saying, "Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful."

"So we give beauty, beauty, beauty back to God," Beasley said.

The previous day had been a whirlwind of preparation at the church near downtown. The activity included a Secret Service sweep in anticipation of the Bushes' attendance. For two hours on Saturday, a choir of 300, assembled from four local choral groups, spent two hours rehearsing with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and organist Albert Travis. Travis' famous organ at Broadway Baptist was named for Cliburn's mother, Rildia Bee.

Choir members were forced to learn Russian lyrics phonetically, said Thomas Stoker, who conducted most of the pieces.

"Only for Van," Stoker said after the service. "There is just nobody that loved music this deeply. Nobody that I knew."

After two majestic hymns and the Lord's Prayer, Cliburn's longtime companion, Thomas L. Smith, offered the first of several brief eulogies. Since Cliburn was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer six months ago, "the outpouring of affection and concern has been overwhelming," Smith said.

"For me it's the loss of my soul mate and my deepest friend," Smith said. "Thank you for being with Van and with me today."

Smith was followed to the pulpit by Bush, who recalled how Cliburn had performed the Star-Spangled Banner at the opening of Rangers Ballpark in 1994.

"Few remember the home team lost to Milwaukee," Bush said to laughter. In 1958, he continued, "there were no hot dogs and cold beer in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory."

Bush said Cliburn's audience that year at the Tchaikovsky Competition had "been schooled in the evils of America." A different picture emerged from Cliburn's playing, Bush said.

"Van traveled the world, charming friend and foe," Bush said. "Members of the President's Club could have taken a lesson from him in diplomacy."

Perry's remarks followed a rousing rendition of America the Beautiful.

"Van taught us an important lesson we all could learn," Perry said. "We all, deep down, are more alike than we are different. Van was one of the true heroes of the Cold War ... Texas lost a true legend in his passing, and he will never be forgotten."

Fort Worth friends recalled a man who never lost his humility and concern for others, despite his frequent acquaintance with the powerful. Lawyer Dee Kelly noted that Cliburn had played for every American president since his Moscow triumph.

"He was invited to the White House more times that Billy Graham," Kelly said to more laughter.

Kelly noted that Cliburn "kept a different schedule than most of us. Van went to bed about the same time I was having breakfast in the morning." The lawyer noted his love of red roses. "He gave away thousands."

And as did several others, Kelly spoke of Cliburn's love for his mother and first teacher, Rildia Bee.

"He was never looking to make history as a classical musician," Kelly said. "He just wanted to play well enough to please his mother. In the end, he did both."

Fort Worth investor Sid Bass described Cliburn's capacity for friendship. Decades ago, when both men lived in New York City, "he would call me at 3 or 4 a.m.," Bass said. The message: "I was just thinking of you. I just had to call."

"The entire phone call, that's all it was, an expression of love," Bass said.

Another time, Cliburn asked Bass to guess where he had the worst stage fright. Bass thought New York.

"Oh no, Fort Worth," Cliburn said. "I have so many friends in Fort Worth. I just couldn't stand to let them down."

As he became progressively sicker in recent months, Cliburn still spoke of chartering a plane for one last trip to Russia, Bass said.

"He had so many friends there he had to say goodbye to," Bass said.

Cliburn's love for that country permeated Broadway Baptist on Sunday, music that recalled the great moments of his public life.

One of them came in 1987, when the pianist emerged from a long performing hiatus to play at the White House for President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. After his recital that night, Gorbachev's wife had a request, a popular Russian folk ballad called Moscow Nights. Cliburn gladly obliged, playing and singing alone. He received a famous hug from Gorbachev afterward.

On Sunday, the choir sang that same piece, a remarkable performance given the language challenges, and the unfamiliarity with the music. The service also included a 13-minute Adagio movement from Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, performed by the Fort Worth Symphony and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and a choral performance of a hymn composed by Tchaikovsky.

"He was part of our lives, our hearts, our hero and our legend," said Olga Rostropovich, the daughter of legendary Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, another of Cliburn's good friends.

It was the daughter who read a letter of condolence from Putin, the Russian leader who called Cliburn, "one of the most outstanding musicians of modern times."

"Over the course of many years, during the most difficult of historical times, the art of Van Cliburn brought together people from different countries, different continents, and united them," Putin wrote. "He brought the light of kindness, fairness and faith in the power of art ...We shall always remember Van Cliburn as a true and sincere friend of the Russian people."

Many in the congregation dabbed away tears during the final hymn, "God Be With You Till We Meet Again." But when Cliburn's casket was taken from the church, it was to a haunting Russian folk melody.

In a musical send off for the ages, the final note was Russian.

Tim Madigan, (817) 390-7544

Twitter: @tsmadigan

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