Chapter 1

Recognizing A
World-Class Talent

The financial backing of Kilgore’s oil boom, as well as Van’s parents overwhelming encouragement, training, and support, helped shape Van’s raw talent into the master performer he soon became.

A Local Prodigy

As Rildia Bee instilled a love for singing, classical music, and piano in Van, she also taught him to be humble, to serve others, and to be kind - traits he held for the rest of his life. His professional trajectory was steep, winning a state-wide piano competition at just 12 years old, which resulted in him playing with the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1946.

Van at various competitions and performances at a young age.

A New Mentor

At age 17, Van enrolled at the Juilliard School to be taught under Rosina Lhévinne. She, like Rildia Bee, also had the promise of a music career that resulted in training other great musicians, including composer John Williams and conductor James Levine. Lhévinne trained Van in a romantic, Russian style, in line with her background of training.

Rildia Bee's early training, and Rosina Lhévinne's strict mentorship and Russian style helped propel Van to win over the Russian public at the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition just a couple of years after graduating from Juilliard. It was Lhévinne who convinced Van to apply to the historic competition – which would soon change his life forever.