Cliburn winner confident of his repertoire

Vadym Kholodenko plays at the Mann on Thursday.
Vadym Kholodenko plays at the Mann on Thursday.
Posted: August 02, 2013

The paradox of grand, glitzy piano competitions is that contestants' musical personalities don't fully emerge until after the prizes are won and the stress of achieving them is past.

Who - really - is Vadym Kholodenko, the 26-year-old gold medal winner of the recent 14th Van Cliburn International Competition? Philadelphia Orchestra audiences will be the first to find out when he plays his first (noncompetition) U.S. concerto performance at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Mann Center.

This is a pianist who walked in with a strong inner identity and very much kept it intact. But his playing is bound to be different from the competition excerpts on YouTube.

"The competition . . . it's not a festival. It's not a concert, of course. It's not real life," said Kholodenko, who was approaching the end of his age eligibility when he won the quadrennial Cliburn in June. "But I had played all these works many times before. And through all of this, I continued to think about the music and make some changes."

No interpretive decision is final. And he may be in a higher state of evolution than he thinks.

"I heard him at the Sendai [International Music Competition in Japan] three years ago when he won first prize," said Juilliard School piano professor Veda Kaplinsky, who was among the Cliburn Competition jurors, "and he certainly has come a long way since. Of the six particular finalists, he was my choice. He's solid, intelligent, and consistent."

Kholodenko will play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 Thursday night in honor of Cliburn, who died this year, in what the Mann Center is calling a tribute concert. But Kiev-born Kholodenko gravitates toward brainier repertoire than Cliburn's. He met the competition culture halfway with the classic barn-burner Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, and delivered his finest moments in the super-difficult Three Dances from Stravinsky's Petroushka, in ways that had the ballet's characters all but dancing off the keyboard.

After all, Kholodenko had studied the ballet's staging on video. "I try to be in every particular character," he says.

Kaplinsky was particularly impressed: "There's no doubt that Vadym's Petroushka was the best of his presentations."

Elsewhere, though, he chose Mozart's lower-key Piano Concerto No. 21, John Adams' modern Phrygian Gates, and, in his finalist recital, Beethoven's late-period Piano Sonata No. 30 Op. 109 - a bit daring. What is unusual is that Kholodenko could have played any one of the 32 Beethoven sonatas. He knows them all, plus an impressive tally of 25 concertos.

His primary idols are some of the least theatrical talents of modern times. One is Grigory Sokolov, whose intense concentration on whatever he plays makes him seem more like an apostle of music than a performer. Glenn Gould, who retired from concertizing at the height of his career, looms even larger. While many of his contemporaries are honing their Liszt, Kholodenko is, in Gouldian fashion, preparing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

"I'm very conscious of trying to continue what I did before the competition," he said. "I just continue to do what I should do."

Of course, competition prizes can be too much too soon. But Kholodenko was already playing some 50 engagements a year. With the Cliburn prize, he'll be up to 75 and in higher-profile places around the world for three years. Plus $50,000 - and two things that money alone seems not to buy these days: concert management and recordings with the prestigious Harmonia Mundi label.

Concert management is something many top European artists long for but can't easily obtain amid the post-9/11 challenges of proper visas and work permits.

Perhaps the best reward, though, is never having to enter another competition. The pressure of the Cliburn is such that Kholodenko can't even tell you much about Fort Worth, Texas, the competition's congenial setting, because "I just practiced." His wife and young daughter stayed home in Moscow; with all the visa applications required, they had to.

He might have faced the same cycle at the forthcoming Queen Elisabeth and Tchaikovsky competitions - but now, with the Cliburn win, that's not necessary.

"For the audience, competitions are fun. They chose their favorites," he says. "But for the contestants, it's a massacre, not physically but mentally. It's so hard. Once in life is quite enough."

Then again, the first fruits of the prize was a Philadelphia Orchestra gig: "So it's a big prize."

Contact David Patrick Stearns at

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