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May 11, 2001


DALLAS (SMU) -- Southern Methodist University will confer an honorary Doctor of Arts degree upon pianist Van Cliburn during its 86th annual commencement ceremony at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 19, in Moody Coliseum, 6024 Airline Road.

In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, 23-year-old Texan Van Cliburn won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, making him the first classical musician for whom the city of New York has thrown a ticker-tape parade. He later became one of the highest paid concert pianists of his generation, performing with every major orchestra and conductor and appearing in all of the internationally renowned concert halls.

He has made many timeless and popular recordings of major piano concertos, and has developed a vast solo repertoire. The recording he made with Kiril Kondrashin, the Russian conductor with whom he played his 1958 prize-winning performance in Moscow -- "Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1" -- has sold more than three million copies worldwide. In 1962, he established the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which is held every four years in Fort Worth to encourage the development of young artists.

In 1987, after an extended sabbatical, Cliburn performed at the White House at a state dinner honoring Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Soviet Union's General Secretary. Two years later, and 31 years after his triumph at the Tchaikovsky Competition, Cliburn returned to the Soviet Union to perform at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and in Leningrad, which is today St. Petersburg.

Before 1958, Cliburn had already won numerous awards in the United States, including the prestigious Leventritt Foundation Award in New York in 1954, and had appeared with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Dmitri Mitropoulos and with other major American orchestras. Cliburn played in public for the first time at the age of four, and at the age of 12 made his orchestral debut with the Houston Symphony as the winner of a statewide competition for young pianists in Texas. Cliburn studied piano with his mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, from the age of three until he entered The Juilliard School at 17 to study with Rosina Lhevinne. Mrs. Cliburn studied with Arthur Friedheim, who had been a student of Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt.

Education and encouragement of young artists has been a primary interest of Cliburn throughout his career. In addition to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, he has endowed scholarship programs at The Juilliard School, Cincinnati Conservatory, Texas Christian University, Louisiana State University, the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, and at the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories.

In addition to Cliburn, federal judge William Wayne Justice will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at commencement. The university has already awarded King Juan Carlos I of Spain an honorary Doctor of Arts degree March 30 when he visited SMU to attend the International Festival of Opening Events for the new Meadows Museum.