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March 6, 2013

Remembering Pianist Van Cliburn

By Ken Fischer

Photos: L: Van Cliburn performs for a capacity audience including “stage seating” in Hill Auditorium in March 15, 1968. R: UMS president Ken Fischer with Van Cliburn during his visit to Ann Arbor for the first Ford Honors Program in 1996.

When Penny and I were teens at Interlochen in 1961, we had the thrill of accompanying this ‘rock star’ of classical music as members of the National High School Orchestra when he performed the Tchaikovksy piano concerto in the Kresge Auditorium at Interlochen. It was this piece that sealed his winning the first Tchaikovsky competition in Russian in 1958 at the height of the Cold War between Russia and the U.S.

I served on the Interlochen board with Van in the early 1970s. He maintained a long relationship with Interlochen for many years and provided scholarship support to many students.

He received the UMS Distinguished Artist Award at the inaugural Ford Honors Program on May 11, 1996. The photo above was taken of Van and me outside of Sloan Plaza in Ann Arbor where Van stayed in the apartment provided by Don Chisholm. I gave him a photo I had taken the previous November when I was in Moscow’s Red Square. It’s a photo of St. Basil’s Cathedral taken in a snowstorm.

UMS commissioned Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Dave Barrett to produce a 4-minute video on Cliburn’s career that we showed at Ford Honors. Barrett set the video to the music of “One Shining Moment,” the famous sports song that Barrett wrote and that has accompanied the highlight film following CBS’s coverage of the NCAA National Championship basketball game for the past 27 years. The song has been performed by such artists as Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, Jennifer Hudson, and Barrett himself. It’s Barrett who performs it in the video.

Van Cliburn had “One Shining Moment” at the Tchaikovsky competition so it seemed appropriate to use this music with a few word changes as a backdrop to the video. The images in the video are from a 1996 documentary directed by Peter Rosen titled “Van Cliburn: Classical Pianist.”

I will remember Van as a warm, gracious person who loved people, loved the arts, and loved life.


Ken Fischer is the President of the University Musical Society (UMS) of the University of Michigan (U-M). Under Ken’s leadership UMS has expanded and diversified its programming and audiences; deepened its engagement with the U-M and southeast Michigan communities; created effective partnerships with corporations, arts organizations, educational institutions, and community organizations; and received significant grants from the leading arts foundations. Ken has contributed to the presenting field as speaker, workshop leader, writer, consultant, panelist, and U.S. State Department cultural ambassador to Brazil, China, Lithuania, and Mexico. He chairs the board of National Arts Strategies and the national advisory board of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. He serves on the boards of the Sphinx Organization, International Society for the Performing Arts, Cultural Alliance of Southeast Michigan, and Ann Arbor SPARK. Ken received ISPA's Patrick Hayes Award in 2003 and APAP's Fan Taylor Award in 2011 for his career achievements and the Mariam Noland Award for Nonprofit Leadership from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan in 2012. Ken has been recognized by The Links, Inc., Ann Arbor Public Schools Foundation, Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau, Michigan Taiwanese American Association, and Performance Network for his contributions to the Ann Arbor community. Ken has degrees from The College of Wooster and U-M and is a graduate of Plymouth (MI) High School’s Class of 1962. Ken’s home was Plymouth, Michigan, between 1950-67 where he grew up with his three siblings Jerry, Norman, and Martha, and with his parents Beth and Jerry Fischer. Ken’s wife is flutist Penny Peterson Fischer whom he met at Interlochen as a teen in 1961. Their son Matt is Senior Director of the App Store at Apple and lives with his wife Renee and sons Alex and Reid in the San Francisco Bay area. Ken's personal interests include mentoring U-M students and emerging arts leaders, Interlochen, Detroit Tigers, skiing, photography, and the efforts of Zeitouna to find effective ways to resolve conflict.