Remembering Van Cliburn - A Longtime Friend of Interlochen

On February 27, 2013, the world lost a musical legend and the Interlochen community lost a longtime friend, advocate and former trustee. For more than four decades, Van Cliburn maintained a musical presence on the Interlochen campus, inspiring thousands of students, teachers and music-lovers, and helping Interlochen expand its international reputation. 

After Van Cliburn’s stunning success in the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958, Joseph Maddy became determined to bring the pianist to Interlochen. Failing to reach Van Cliburn through traditional channels, Maddy then reached out to Rildia Bee O'Bryan, Van Cliburn’s former piano teacher - who also happened to be his mother - and she happily took up Maddy’s cause. Van Cliburn agreed to a single performance in the summer of 1961 and then performed every summer through 1978. Starting in 1979, Van Cliburn reduced his own performance schedule but maintained a presence at Interlochen, sending medalists from his foundation’s International Piano Competition to perform. In 2006, he returned to Interlochen to perform with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra, marking the 45th anniversary of his first performance. He also served as a trustee of Interlochen from 1963 to 2004. 

Interlochen archivist, Byron Hanson, notes that the 1961 appearance was an important turning point for the institution. “His visit led to the Interlochen Arts Festival and an expanded effort to bring celebrity performers to our stage. This tradition is very much with us today. Also, with Maddy approaching his 70s, the 27 year-old piano phenomenon brought a burst of energy to Interlochen.” 

During Van Cliburn’s final visit to Interlochen in 2006, Jeffrey Kimpton, president of Interlochen Center for the Arts, spent time with the pianist and witnessed his commitment to the students and music first-hand. “At his last Interlochen performance, he stayed for two hours after the audience had left. It was a hot summer day and uncomfortably warm backstage, but instead of escaping to the air conditioning, he took time to speak with every student in the World Youth Symphony Orchestra about their life and music. That is the type of person that Van Cliburn was." 

During his many years at Interlochen, Van Cliburn inspired thousands of campers, faculty and staff. But he was always quick to point out that he was also inspired by the Interlochen community. After performing in 1965, he penned a short thank you note to campers with whom he had performed, expressing his gratitude and a desire to return to campus before the summer was over. 

Dear Campers:

It has been five years since I first witnessed the miracle of Interlochen - with all its beauty, warmth, repose, and inspiration. You will never know completely just what these visits mean to me. I constantly think about you all - the fantastic staff and faculty, the incredibly talented students. Of course, the power of music and Art is the force for the hours of inspiration we together share, not only now but for all our lives.

I hope to return before the summer is over. In case I am not able, remember always how deeply indebted I am to all of you for your great warmth, your sincerity, your kind thoughtfulness - yes, even your wonderful smiles. Our friendship endures far beyond these brief days, for I am sure we will be meeting again in different cities and orchestras and remembering our days together at Interlochen.

You have my warmest and affectionate wishes for your happiness, health, and continued success always. God bless you all.

Sincerely as ever, 
Van Cliburn

July 16, 1965

As the Interlochen community mourned the passing of this musical legend, Interlochen Public Radio produced a special program for Points North, celebrating his contributions to Interlochen. Interlochen alumni are invited to share their memories on the Interlochen Facebook page.