Van Cliburn

Cliburn finalist Vadym Kholodenko owes his piano success to his mother

As young child growing up in Ukraine, Vadym Kholodenko wasn’t interested in the piano.

“I did not pay attention to the piano,” Kholodenko said of the musical instrument that sat in his mother’s home. “I just moved by it.”

Like most kids, Kholodenko just wanted to play outside — but his mother had other ideas.

“She didn’t want me to spend all my time running on the playground, so she decided to bring me to a music school,” Kholodenko said, remembering that he started playing when he was about 5. “But after my first lesson, I was so inspired.”

Kholodenko’s playing during the Cliburn competition has also inspired Fort Worth audiences and has landed him in the finals. At 26, he is the oldest finalist.

He spent his elementary years in Kiev, Ukraine, learning to play the piano 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. Being a teacher has made him a better pianist, he said.

“I understand a lot of what I’m actually playing myself when I teach and try to explain it to my students,” Kholodenko said.

After his semifinal performances, dozens of fans seeking his autograph gathered outside the backstage door of Bass Hall waiting for Kholodenko to emerge. But they often had to wait a few extra minutes as he has a penchant for grabbing a piece of fruit, like a banana or grapes, from the backstage mom.

He has also impressed Fort Worth Symphony conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya with his solo recital of Liszt’s 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.

Harth-Bedoya also showed Kholodenko’s host mother, Imelda Castro, how to tie a white bow tie for the solo recital since she couldn’t find a pre-tied white bow tie at local stores.

“He really wanted a white bow tie, but I couldn’t find one that hooked,” said Castro, who is family friends with Harth-Bedoya.

To keep himself loose during the competition, Castro said, Kholodenko has taken several walks through her neighborhood. On Tuesday, before the big finalist announcements, she took him to the Fort Worth Zoo just to walk and relax.

During the competition, Kholodenko has taken time to Skype his wife, Sofia, also a pianist, and their 21/2-year-old daughter, Nika, who live in Moscow and are unable to attend the competition.

While Kholodenko has been thrilling audiences at Bass Hall with Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, Nika had her first piano lesson.

“She just tried to play some notes,” Kholodenko said proudly. “What I liked though is she seemed quite clear and had proper pitch.”

For the finals, Kholodenko plans to dazzle the jury with concertos by Mozart and Prokofiev. He plays for the first time in the finals tonight.

And he hopes the Cliburn will be the beginning of a long career as a concert pianist.

“This competition, it saved me from Queen Elisabeth [piano competition] and the upcoming Tchaikovsky competition because if I failed at the Cliburn, I thought I should go to the Tchaikovsky,” Kholodenko said. “But now I think my career may start after being in the finals of the Cliburn.”

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