Whenever Vadym Kholodenko is on an airplane preparing to land in Dallas-Fort Worth, his thoughts turn to his girls, Nika and Michaela Maria.
“It’s a very special feeling,” Kholodenko says with a slight smile. “When I’m here, I just feel this connection with the girls again … being on soil where they rest.”
His young daughters are buried in Fort Worth, where the Ukrainian pianist had moved his family after he won the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and embarked on a professional concert career. Nika, 5, and Michaela, 1, were killed in their Benbrook home in March 2016, their mother, the pianist’s estranged wife, charged with their deaths.
In the nearly 14 months that have passed, Kholodenko has tried to focus on the other great joy of his life, music. He has traveled to concert halls all over Europe and Asia, letting the music he plays begin to heal him.
“Right after, I continued to play just to make it through,” says the 30-year-old pianist, seated in the living room of a friend’s Fort Worth home in late April. “It wasn’t a question for me to play or not to play, because you know my children are one part of me and my music is just another part of me. So I feel if you take away both … I’d be completely destroyed.”
It is music that brings Kholodenko back to Fort Worth this month, first to play with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in performances May 12-14 at Bass Hall, and then to help with the opening proceedings of the quadrennial Cliburn competition.
Kholodenko’s FWSO concerts conclude a three-year commitment as the orchestra’s inaugural artist in residence. He will be the guest soloist for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, the piece he last played with FWSO to earn Cliburn gold four years ago. It also marks the last of the five Prokofiev concertos that Kholodenko is recording with the FWSO. ( Recordings of the Second and Fifth concertos were released in 2016, and once the Third is recorded this week, it will be packaged with the First and Fourth, which were recorded with the symphony in 2015.)
Prokofiev’s Third is a favorite of Kholodenko’s, but not just because he played it in the Cliburn finals. As a child, he repeatedly listened to a CD recording of Evgeny Kissin playing the massive work. “When I was 10 years old, I tried to play this music because I had the chords in my head,” Kholodenko says. “It was a very poor and pathetic attempt to re-create Prokofiev’s music.”
A family friend brought Kholodenko the sheet music and he learned the piece at a young age, although he admits he was not technically prepared to play it. He says his favorite part of the piece is the coda, where it deviates substantially from C major before dramatically returning to that key.
The FWSO performances will be poignant for another reason. They were supposed to take place March 18, 2016 — the day after his daughters’ deaths.
A father’s memories
Kholodenko’s wife, Sofya Tsygankova, pleaded not guilty to two charges of capital murder of a person under age 10. She was declared incompetent to stand trial last November and is being treated in a state mental health facility. Kholodenko says he has not talked with Tsygankova.
Instead, he thinks about his girls, like how Nika loved ballet; he has kept a ballet book she was reading at that time.
“For a time, it was so difficult to articulate how I felt,” Kholodenko says. “But [music] definitely helped.”
Recently, Kholodenko says, an “idea crystallized in my head”: he still has a responsibility as their father and believes they would be proud of him playing on stage.
“Nika, I remember, she visited my chamber music concert … and she articulated this phrase, ‘I am very proud of you,’” Kholodenko says. “So in order for them, to keep them, I continue to play.
“This responsibility stays with me, and my memory of them stays with me forever.”
Last August, when Kholodenko played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the FWSO at Bass Hall, he received a large envelope full of letters of support from the symphony musicians. He says he hadn’t realized until recently how many people in Fort Worth had seen the girls or knew them.
“Every message was so special,” Kholodenko says. “It stays in a folder here [in Fort Worth at his Cliburn host family’s house] and from time to time, I open it and read it.
“It has this power to heal.”
Return to the Cliburn
At a party on May 23, Kholodenko will help kick off the 2017 Cliburn competition by drawing competitors’ names to help determine the order of play in the preliminary round. It’s a duty that the late Van Cliburn himself used to perform.
Kholodenko said he hasn’t given any tips to those who hope to win. “In very sincere words, I’m just jealous that they will get to experience this,” he says. “They don’t need my advice.”
He says he is looking forward to watching a new group of young musicians, some of whom he already knows, such as returning competitor Yury Favorin. But he won’t say whom he will be cheering for. He knows that whoever wins the next gold medal will be fortunate to receive the management of the Cliburn to prepare for life as a professional musician.
“The main prize I got after the Cliburn is experience. Experience to be onstage. Experience to be ready to play,” Kholodenko says. “After four years, I know my abilities. I know what I’m ready for, and I know what I’m not ready for.”
He says he is grateful for all of the engagements Cliburn management booked after he won and thinks about the “great people” he met all across the United States. For example, he found an artistic community in New Harmony, Ind., a town of only a couple of hundred people, and had wonderful conversations about Boris Pasternak and Russian literature.
“This feeling of people who donate for the arts, who support their local art scene, this is something that I found in the U.S. and what stays with me. I admire this,” Kholodenko says. When the Fort Worth Symphony musicians went on strike last fall, Kholodenko walked the strike line with them, proudly wearing a green shirt that said “support the musicians.”
As soon as he finishes playing with the FWSO on Sunday, he will leave for Luxembourg to play Prokofiev’s Fifth with Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. He will also be recording a collection of pieces by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, which are extremely difficult.
“Scriabin, for me, was kind of a milestone,” Kholodenko says. “Emotions I’m able to express now, it happened because of Scriabin’s music.”
Now that he’s turned 30, Kholodenko says he’s rediscovering composers, finding new emotions and details in piano pieces that he has played for years. He is working on new recitals for the next concert season and is looking forward to his first Latin American tour with concerts in Mexico, Brazil and El Salvador.
“I want to continue playing, performing, expressing myself and of course, expressing my life experience,” Kholodenko says. “It’s part of me, and it’s in my music, and I don’t want to hide it.”