Playing Prokofiev under the stage lights of Bass Hall is more than just familiar for Cliburn gold medal winner Vadym Kholodenko.
For Kholodenko, it’s now home.
The 28-year-old Ukrainian pianist moved his wife, Sofya Tsygankova, 30, and 4-year-old daughter, Nika, to Fort Worth this year and is in the process of getting his green card. And on Friday night, he will take the stage at Bass Hall to play Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
“I have so many friends here and people are so kind to me, so I made the decision to stay,” Kholodenko said in a recent interview. “I would like to be part of this country.”
Before coming to Fort Worth for the Cliburn competition in 2013, Kholodenko had spent little time in the U.S. even though his father lives in Boston. But at the urging of his Cliburn host mother, Imelda Castro, and encouragement from the Fort Worth Symphony’s maestro, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Kholodenko said, he knew moving to Texas was right for him and his family.
Since that time, war has broken out between Russia and his birth country, Ukraine. And although he doesn’t like to talk politics, he feels torn about the war.
“I know Russians who sincerely hate Ukrainians, and I know Ukrainians who honestly think Russians are so bad that we should have a war with them,” Kholodenko said. “It’s a crazy situation, but I cannot change anything. I just feel very badly about it.”
Deciding to move
Kholodenko describes the decision to bring his family to the U.S. as “spontaneous,” choosing his words carefully because he and his wife are going through the process of obtaining permanent-resident cards.
But for his wife, the move was also prompted by medical problems with Nika’s skin.
“Nobody could help us with this problem, and we had a very hard time with her,” Tsygankova said. “We wanted to be together, with Vadym, to be a family, and for us, maybe it was the only choice for us to come here.”
Kholodenko had tried to obtain permanent residency in Russia because he was studying piano at the Moscow Conservatory and his wife was a Russian citizen. But the process was complicated, and after he won the Cliburn in June 2013, he found himself spending more time in the U.S.
“It was an incredible experience for sure, even though it was very hard for me physically,” Kholodenko said.
His travels sometimes took him from a concert in Los Angeles to another engagement in the Ural Mountains in Russia a few days later. And with all the concerts, visits to his family were few.
“We didn’t see a lot of Vadym in Moscow when he’s traveling a lot around” the U.S., Tsygankova said. “It would be impossible for him to come home for one day between concerts.”
Castro, his Cliburn host mother, kept inviting him to stay at her house. When Kholodenko chose to stay in Fort Worth, Castro insisted that his family move in with her.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Find an apartment for what? We have space in the house. Come stay here and save your money and then when you have money, you can buy a place here in Fort Worth close to my house,’ ” Castro recalled.
Kholodenko and his family moved into Castro’s southwest Fort Worth home in March. And in July, they welcomed the newest member, Michaela, who was born in Fort Worth.
“It was incredible hospitality to have guests for half a year in your house,” Tsygankova said, adding that they are grateful to the Castros.
Castro helped the family find doctors and arranged play dates for Nika with her own grandchildren to help the girl learn English. Castro had immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1960s, so she wanted to provide as much support as possible for Kholodenko.
“I know how difficult it is not to have anybody when you are new in a place,” Castro said. “They are very good kids. … They are very easy to host and they like my food! That’s important.”
Unrest back home
As Kholodenko continued with his spring concert season, war broke out in Ukraine.
Russia invaded the western part of Ukraine and took control of Crimea. And in July, separatists accidentally shot down a Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine.
Kholodenko’s Ukrainian citizenship was never an issue when he lived in Moscow. But a few weeks ago, as he traveled from Oslo, Norway, to Moscow and then to Kiev, he was briefly detained by government officials after going through customs in Moscow.
“They asked me what did I do in the States. I said just playing concerts and they said that’s fine,” Kholodenko said.
His mother lives in Kiev, but it’s far from the fighting, he said, so he’s not worried.
But he said some have questioned why he is moving to the U.S.
“I heard some opinions about my moving to the States that I’m a traitor who got an education in Russia and now fled to the States, something like that. But I think you should not pay attention to not-intelligent people,” Kholodenko said.
Some of his friends are sad to see him leave and are worried that he will forget where he came from.
“They think that if you are moving to some country, it’s forever, like you lose your cultural roots or you lose what they call in Russia spirituality,” Kholodenko said. “If you have strong cultural roots, you cannot lose them if you move to another place.”
A harmonious partnership
Kholodenko also decided to make Fort Worth his home because of his artist-in-residence partnership with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
Harth-Bedoya became a fan of Kholodenko’s during the Cliburn, helping him obtain a white bow tie for his performances.
“I see in Vadym a complete artist that goes way beyond the instrument,” Harth-Bedoya said. “He has many musical interests and has a varied repertoire, and it will be an important experience for the FWSO to interact with an artist like him on an ongoing basis.”
Kholodenko will perform Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 with the orchestra this weekend as part of a series of concerts over the next two years in which he will play all five of the Russian composer’s concertos.
Kholodenko said Harth-Bedoya is an important part of his growing career as a concert pianist. Kholodenko acknowledged that after the Cliburn, he signed some concert contracts he probably shouldn’t have. Now, with Harth-Bedoya’s advice, he can make better professional decisions.
As he enters his second concert season after his Cliburn win, Kholodenko said he has spaced out his performances so he can spend more time with his family.
And by living in Fort Worth — the family moved into a duplex in August — Tsygankova can make sure he’s getting enough sleep, eating properly and practicing piano.
“It’s very important for me to be here so that I can hear my husband and how he’s practicing,” said Tsygankova, who is also a pianist and hopes to improve her English so she can teach kids in Fort Worth.
“Most of the time, his playing teaches me how to do it, and it changes me as a musician also and makes me better.”
Kholodenko said he knows the Cliburn win has given him more concert opportunities. But now, he said, he must prove he can handle the demands of being a professional musician.
“I’m not frightened that I will not play next month like before,” Kholodenko said. “For example, half the year was completely empty, which is horrible for a concert pianist. But now, I’m busy — very busy — but I’m happy to do it.”