Sitting in the second row of Bass Hall, Vadym Kholodenko nervously played Doodle Jump on his phone, waiting almost an hour into the awards ceremony Sunday night to hear his name called as the winner of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
“Wow. Really. Wow. I cannot believe,” Kholodenko said backstage after he received his gold medal. “It’s not like I tried to make the medals, but I really cannot believe.”
Kholodenko, the 26-year-old Ukrainian pianist who wore a signature white bow tie and brought a Bass Hall audience bounding out of its seats after his Prokofiev concerto two days ago, playfully stuck his tongue out while he hoisted the silver Van Cliburn Winner’s Cup above his head onstage. The audience, again, was on its feet.
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When Kholodenko arrived for the Cliburn competition, he told the Star-Telegram Sunday afternoon, he did not think he would make it past the preliminaries because he was tired from a busy spring concert schedule. But he charmed Fort Worth audiences with his semifinal performance of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, keeping them from applauding until he completed the 50-minute cycle of songs.
Among Kholodenko’s most impressive accomplishments was a cadenza he wrote on the airplane for the work he played Sunday afternoon, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C.
He hadn’t heard a cadenza to the first movement that he liked, so he decided to write his own.
“While I had a flight to Dallas, I just wrote the cadenza in nine hours,” he said after his performance. “Afterwards I made some alterations and changes and so but the main canvas was written in the airplane.”
Kholodenko was awarded the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Gold Medal and the winner’s cup. He will also receive recordings on the Harmonia Mundi label, three years of artistic management by the Cliburn, including international concert engagements, and $50,000 — the largest cash prize in Cliburn competition history.
He earned an additional $11,000 for winning discretionary awards: best performance of the commissioned piece and best performance of a chamber work. (Kholodenko was the only competitor to perform Franck’s Piano Quintet in f minor.)
Kholodenko climbed steadily to the top of critics’ lists throughout the competition and gained many fans while doing so. Increasingly larger crowds gathered at the stage door after each of his performances. Among his most ardent fans was Fort Worth Symphony Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who was particularly taken with his performance of the Transcendental Etudes.
“An hour later, I realized I hadn’t blinked for an entire hour with all the Liszt and to do that to me it was amazing what he had delivered,” Harth-Bedoya said earlier in the week.
Star-Telegram critic Olin Chism said of Kholodenko’s progress: “Early on, his rambling performance of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1 was not promising, and later his account of 11 of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes, while impressive as a display of technique, was not enough to win over doubters.
“But there were some powerful highlights, including the most appealing of all, the Stravinsky Three Movements From Petroushka (Kholodenko looked like he was having fun while playing it), an excellent Beethoven Sonata No. 30, and a lovely performance of Franck’s Piano Quintet.
"And, of course, his awesome Prokofiev Third.”
At his mother’s urging, Kholodenko started playing the piano at age 5. He spent his elementary years in Kiev, Ukraine, before heading to the Moscow Conservatory to complete his studies. In 2004, as a teenager, he won first place at the Maria Callas International Music Competition. Last year, he won the International Schubert Competition in Dortmund, Germany.
Though Kholodenko has had several concert performances in Europe and Asia, he has started assistant teaching at the Moscow Conservatory.
Although Kholodenko’s wife, Sofia, could not attend the finals as she stayed in Kiev with their 21/2-year-old daughter, Nika, his father, Timur Kholodenko, flew in from his home in Boston on Friday to see his son’s final performances.
“For the first time, I actually felt the energy that everyone is talking about. I felt it flowing from him,” Timur Kholodenko said of his son’s final concertos.
The proud father was so nervous waiting for the awards announcement that his vision was blurry. When his son’s name was announced, the father started to cry.
All six finalists receive three years of commission-free management by the Cliburn Foundation, as well as concert tours for the the first three concert seasons after the competition.
Second- and third-place winners receive cash prizes of $20,000 and Harmonia Mundi recordings.
With his Crystal Award win, Chen becomes the first American to finish in the top three since Jon Nakamatsu, who won the 1997 Cliburn.
On Sunday night, Chen seemed perfectly content with his third-place finish. He likely helped his chances with a performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in d Minor, the 96th and final performance of the competition, which produced one of the most enthusiastic Bass Hall ovations in 17 days of performances.
“To get to the Cliburn is great,” he said. “To get to the semifinals is great. To get to the finals is amazing. To get a medal tops it all off.”
Rana, a piano prodigy and the daughter of two pianists, excelled in all aspects of the repertoire, from subtle and artistic pieces to virtuosic works like the Prokofiev concerto she played in the finals.
“I know that I’m below a great pianist, and when you know someone is a great pianist you cannot be disappointed,” she said.
Rana said she had no plans to enter another competition. She already has management and steady engagements overseas but wants to play more in the United States.
“I want to have a stable career in the States and with a silver medal from the Cliburn I can achieve that,” Rana said. “The market in the United States is very closed. With a medal from the Cliburn the doors will open much more easily.”
In a fun moment at the news conference after the awards ceremony, Chen and Rana were asked if they were disappointed they didn’t win gold. Both said they were not.
Kholodenko was then asked if he was surprised he had won the gold.
“Not disappointed,” he said in his baritone voice, with a straight face as the room erupted in laughter.
“In my opinion, we all six finalists have done their job just a few hours ago and who won which prize is part of the jury’s work,” Kholodenko said. “So I appreciate this work and I am really thankful for this and I don’t think the rank is so really important. It’s kind of fun for audiences. in life it’s not so important.”
Andrea Bonatta of Italy, a frequent juror at piano competitions around the world, said the level of artistry at this year’s Cliburn was as high as he’s ever seen it.
“I think at the very end, it was very clear that capable and mature person artistically speaking was this boy from the Ukraine,” Bonatta said. “It was clear to everyone that he has everything he needs to have a great career.”
Ongoing questions of fairness plagued the competition as local media outlets, bloggers and social media followers raised eyebrows over the number of pianists — 9 of 30 — who were students of jurors. Of the top three finishers, only Rana was a pupil of a juror, Arie Vardi. Cliburn rules preclude jurors from voting on their students.
The competition began May 24. Thirty pianists representing 13 countries played two 45-minute solo recitals in the preliminary round.
On May 31, the field was narrowed to 12 semifinalists, who played an additional 60-minute solo recital and a piano quintet with the Brentano Quartet.
Six finalists were named June 4 and played two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, under renowned American conductor Leonard Slatkin.
Finalists who didn’t win medals: Fei-Fei Dong, 22, of China; Tomoki Sakata, 19, of Japan; and Nikita Mndoyants, 24, of Russia.
“I will probably save the money I won here, go back to New York and maybe then go home to China for a bit of a break,” Dong said. “I’m very tired and happy to be done with it.”
All three expressed disappointment that they did not win a medal but were happy for their colleagues.
Mndoyants’ father, Alexander, won fifth place in the 1977 Cliburn.
“I am a little disappointed that I didn’t get a medal as I honestly thought I had a good chance at one,” Mndoyants said. “But, you know, you can never ever predict how the jury will decide.”
Richard Dyer, a retired classical music critic and longtime Cliburn juror, said members of the panel were not aware of how their colleagues voted.
“But I don’t think anybody is unhappy,” Dyer said. “All three of them were richly deserving. It was an extraordinary field we had this year. The best ones were very different from each other and that’s a good thing. There was no mechanical playing. There was a great deal of playing that was emotional and interesting.”
None of the nonmedal finalists said they plan to audition for future Cliburn competitions.
“As for me coming back, this was so great this time to reach the finals, maybe for a first time is good enough,” said Sakata, who, at 19, was the youngest competitor this year. “Perhaps a second time is too much.”
In a nearly packed Bass Hall on Sunday, the ceremony started with a seven-minute film dedicated to Van Cliburn’s memory — a film filled with rare black-and-white footage from his historic 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition victory, the New York ticker-tape parade afterward, and Cliburn’s subsequent years keeping company with various presidents, giving concerts and generally acting as a much-beloved musical ambassador.
Master of ceremonies Fred Child concluded his opening remarks by quoting from Van Cliburn’s last public appearance, in September on the Bass Hall stage. Child recalled Cliburn as telling the audience, “I love you all from the bottom of my heart forever.”
And Child then borrowed from Cliburn’s final words telling the finalists and the entire Bass Hall crowd, “We love you all from the bottom of our hearts forever.”
Star-Telegram writer Tim Madigan and correspondent Andrew Marton contributed to this article.