Van Cliburn

At the Cliburn: Competitor and Fort Worth host come full circle

Renie Steves got the email on her cellphone in early March, while standing outside a shopping center on Seventh Street in Fort Worth. It came from a young Russian pianist named Nikita Mndoyants, who said he had just received a letter from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

“I’m coming!” the email said.

“I can’t jump very high anymore, but I sure jumped,” Steves said Monday. “I had huge tears running down my cheeks. I couldn’t contain myself. It was silly.”

In that moment, she was taken back 36 years, to another time with another young Russian pianist who was selected to perform in the Cliburn Competition. His name was Alexander Mndoyant, Nikita’s father. During the competition, Alexander spent nearly three weeks as a guest in the Steves’ home. They remain close friends.

Now the son.

On Monday afternoon, Nikita Mndoyants, 24, took a break from practicing for the Cliburn recital he will play this morning at Bass Hall. He and Steves stood in her Fort Worth home, looking at pictures from his father’s visit to Fort Worth, and from Steves’ two trips to see her friends in Moscow in the years since.

“Renie is really a part of my family,” Nikita said. “Of course, it’s so exciting for me to come the place where my dad lived.”

“It’s difficult to get over to you how amazed and majestic I feel,” Steves said. “I mean, it’s come full circle.”

Cold War-era competition

It was still during the Cold War in 1977 when Alexander Mndoyants, then 28, and two other young Russian pianists got off the plane in Texas. They were accompanied by a Russian woman who served as a translator but she was also clearly employed by the KGB security agency. That mattered little to Steves and two other Fort Worth host families who were at the terminal to meet them.

“It was awesome,” Steves remembered. “It was such a thrill for these guys. We got the three guys together a lot, and they had the best time.”

At the time, Alexander Mndoyants did not speak a word of English.

“He stayed in the guest house,” Steves remembered. “There was a pinball machine out there. That was his relaxation. Speaking no English, it was all pantomime. I’d point and say, ‘Come on, Alexander, we’ve got to drive you so you can practice.’ Or he would draw me pictures. He would play a little bit, then draw me pictures about the music.”

He finished fifth in that year’s Cliburn, earning a prize of $2,000. Every cent was spent before he left Fort Worth.

“They felt the government would take it when they got back,” Steves said. “He spent it on toothpaste, on makeup for his mother, on jeans for his whole family. We’d figure out where to go to get the best values.”

A few weeks after the competition, Steves received a letter from Moscow.

“From the first day of parting I’ve missed you very badly,” Alexander Mndoyants wrote. “I was in a hurry to write and thank you for everything you did for me those 20 days I spent in your family. Not for nothing do we have the saying, ‘Small world.’ In the meantime, I’m waiting for you in Moscow. Kisses and hugs. Your Alec.”

He and Steves remained in touch by letter. They were reunited in 1986 when she made the trip to Moscow. By then, Alexander Mndoyants was a prominent teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, living in his mother’s small apartment overlooking Red Square. Steves met Mndoyants’ wife, Lucy, and his first child, a boy named Misha.

“It was February and still a difficult time,” Steves remembered. “They had to stand in line to feed us the kind of food that they wanted.”

The next meeting came 22 years later. By Steves’ second visit to Moscow, there was a second son, 19-year-old Nikita, a promising young pianist himself. He played for Steves during her visit, but there was no thought of him coming to the Cliburn himself.

“I just thought about the competition two years ago,” Nikita Mndoyants said.

Last year he wrote to tell Steves he planned to apply.

“I thought, ‘This is wonderful, but my heavens, 132 apply and only 30 come,’” she said. “I didn’t get my hopes up.”

Then came the email in March. Steves immediately wrote back.

“I want to make it clear to you that if you want to get to know another American family, I will understand,” she said.

There was no choice.

“I don’t have any idea to do it any other way,” Nikita said. “[My father] feels the same way I do. His memories from years ago, now they have become more bright.”

On Friday, Alexander Mndoyants woke up at 4 a.m. Moscow time to listen to his son’s opening recital on the Internet. That night, Steves drove Nikita Mndoyants to Bass Hall, dropping him at the curb for what turned out to be a beautiful performance.

“I reached over and gave him a big hug and I said, ‘I love you, Nikita,’” Steves said. “He hugged me just as hard and he said, ‘I love you.’ I drove away thinking, ‘Could it get any better than this?’”

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