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Van Cliburn Winner Kholodenko in Bay Area Debut

Steinway Society

Date: Sat February 1, 2014 7:00pm

Vadym Kholodenko in a concerto performance Photo by Ellen Appel-Mike MorelandVadym Kholodenko is on a tear around the world. The 27-year-old Ukrainian pianist, who won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition last year, has more than 50 concerts in 2014-2015 as part of the Cliburn program, in addition to numerous engagements across Europe, Russia, and Asia; at major festivals; a residency at the Mariinsky Concert Hall in Saint Petersburg; and he's published a CD of Liszt and Stravinsky.

With all that — and a family in Moscow, about which more later — Kholodenko encountered some health problems, and had to postpone last year's scheduled Bay Area debut with the Steinway Society in Cupertino's DeAnza College, but he is catching up on Saturday.

His recital includes works by Chopin, Brahms' Four Ballades, Kreisler's "Liebesleid" (Love's Sorrow) and "Liebesfreud" (Joy of Love), and Sonata No. 10 (Forgotten Melodies) by Nikolai Medtner, a Russian pianist and composer, a younger contemporary of Rachmaninov.

The Medtner, unfamiliar as it is in the U.S., represents the nearest to contemporary music, although when asked about the subject, Kholodenko was unequivocal:

I love contemporary music. I'm trying to perform and support many of the Russian contemporary composers. I think new music is the only thing which refreshes our art.

How does he put together programs for his recitals?

I don't typically make any difficult calculations when compiling a new program. All of my programs come from my aesthetic views and internal confidence about what is right and what is not. You can imagine it as the Kantian moral universe within. Very helpful.

With his dizzying schedule, there was no opportunity to discuss further the reference to Immanuel Kant, an unusual source of inspiration for concert programming, but chances are Kholodenko was thinking about the famous quote from The Critique of Pure Reason: "Two things inspire me to awe: the starry heavens above and the moral universe within."

Cliburn Chairman Carla Thompson presents the gold medal and winner's cup to Kholodenko last year Photo by Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram Again, just speculating, but what's at issue is Kant's deontological categorical imperative, to consider only what should be done, regardless of consequences, "do the right thing even if the heavens fall." How that helps selecting, say, Prokofiev over Mozart ... only Kholodenko's "internal confidence" knows.

To return to practicalities, here's what the pianist says about the beginnings of his skyrocketing career:

My mother brought me to a music school at age 6, and after just one year I moved to a special music school in Kiev. I believe my first concert tour happened at age 8 or 9 in Hungary and Croatia. Afterwards I had debuts in New York, D.C. and Boston.

Since age 18, he's been studying at Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory. In addition to his teacher at the conservatory, Vera Gornostaeva, Kholodenko cites Emil Gilels and Glenn Gould as the strongest influences: "Gilels for his sound, his approach to the piano, Gould for how he structured musical works."

Gornostaeva's students include more than 50 prize winners of international piano competitions, such as Alexander Slobodyanik, Ivo Pogorelich, and Ayako Uehara.

Kholodenko went on to win major competitions in Germany and Japan, and then came the Cliburn, where more than a hundred of the world's best pianists under the age of 30 vied for one of the 30 semifinalist slots in Fort Worth. The six finalists gave two 45-minute solo recitals, participated in a piano quintet, gave a third hour-long solo recital, and soloed in two piano concertos each.

As Jeff Dunn reported from the competition: "If you’re a kid seeking the fame and glory of being a concert pianist, any sensible person should strongly recommend that you change your focus to something far more attainable, like being an astronaut ... [After the preliminaries, semifinals, and the brutal finals] putting on a space suit and getting shot into orbit seems a lot easier."

Dunn was impressed with Kholodenko at Fort Worth:

He was the only one of the contestants I could imagine playing with one of the top 10 symphony orchestras today. His technique was less fallible than most of the others. He had a thoughtful approach to form. He worked very well with the orchestra and chamber ensemble. He had power, most apparent in Liszt’s transcendental etudes and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3, and tenderness as well. He was creative. He took the risk of composing an elaborate, Beethovian cadenza for the first movement of the Mozart Concerto No. 21, with lots of interesting harmonic changes and fugal passages, and pulled it off with aplomb. The fact that he wrote it on the plane while flying to Fort Worth amazed me. This is a man with a future, and guts.

And so, back to the present, Kholodenko's crazy schedule, and his family in Moscow, including a 3-year-old daughter. How does he do it?

This is a tough question for me. On one hand, I feel very badly to be separated from my family. But from time to time we are traveling together, and they know perfectly why I do what I'm doing. My family is happy, and this is great news for me.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].