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Catching up with Vadym Kholodenko


What did winning the Van Cliburn competition mean to you? 

I'd like to experience it a second time. There's such enormous pressure on all of the competitors. Before the final announcement of the winners, we were so exhausted that everyone was just happy it was finished. When they called my name, at first I did not feel anything. Maybe some tiny bit of happiness, but I was so tired. I only realized what had happened a few weeks after. Management is really the most important part of the prize. For the next three concert seasons I have guaranteed management, and this is the goal I wanted to achieve when I entered the competition.

How are you finding the life of a busy concert pianist? 

Of course I can't complain. It's a challenge to make each concert very special, but that's what I always want to do. That moment when the audience tingles and freezes and listens to every note, that makes it worthwhile. I have been traveling and performing for the past four months. It's a very intense schedule, but it's also a great privilege to be able to do this.

Is it hard to find the time to prepare new repertoire when you're traveling and performing so much? 

Right now I have three or four different recitals in my repertoire, and five or six concertos. For the spring season I will prepare new repertoire. New things I practice in my mind when I'm on the airplane. If I have studied the score, by the time I sit down at the piano, it's quite easy. Maybe just a few technical things I have to practice, but the work of understanding the music I can do away from the keyboard. 

What do you make of fears that classical music is dying? 

I think these fears are maybe a few centuries old. No composers were ever Bill Gates. It has always been a struggle for musicians. Touring around America these past few months has shown me that classical music is in very good condition here. All concerts are nearly sold out; there's tremendous interest. After a recent concert, a young person asked me, "Why do music, why didn't you do law or business?" For me, classical music is truth. It's wonderful just to have a possibility to touch music. It's such an honor to be involved in this activity at any level. 

What is your routine on days when you perform?

Usually I practice, but I stop a few hours before the recital. Then I take a nap, maybe for thirty minutes. If I feel good after, then I do some yoga (not in my tuxedo). Then I try to really focus emotionally. Every concert should be special, should produce emotions.

What sort of involvement did you have with music as a child? 

My first memory of music was when I was four and I think my mother played the "Moonlight" Sonata. She just played for fun, not professionally. I remember I was sort of impressed. At age six, she brought me to a normal music school, then after one year I went to a special music school. They prepare children for a conservatory. All we did was play and study music. They prepare children for a real professional life as a musician. Very serious study.

Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata is more commonly performed than his First. What draws you to the First Sonata? 

I used to think it was very boring. But my teacher at Moscow Conservatory, Vera Gornostaeva, asked me just to open the score. I sight-read through it, and I realized it was a masterpiece. It holds a very special place in my heart. It requires perspective. You can't approach the music like this (he holds an imaginary score one inch from his eyes). You have to step back and see the whole structure. You exhale through the end of the piece. When I play this, I hear a very unstable time in Russian history. The time of Rasputin. I hear the suffering of people. 

What do you like to do when you're not playing or performing?

If you look on my iPod, there's no classical music. I listen to Radiohead or Coldplay. Classical music is my job, so when I go jogging, I like rock music. I also like to read books. I try to fill the holes in my education. I read mostly nonfiction: philosophy, economics, history. I also love cartoons. Futurama, South Park, that stuff I really like.

Do you get nervous before you perform?

Of course I am nervous before every performance. But when I am onstage, it's like magic, like a play in the theater, and I'm listening in the audience. Then I don't feel pressure, I enjoy it. I just follow the plot of the music. Music is such an interesting substance. It's not like you move music forward; music moves you forward. 

Who are some pianists you particularly admire?

Emil Gilels and Glenn Gould. I love how Gould structures music; everything is so clear. In Gilels, I love the sound, the tone. There is something really special there. 

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