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Interview with pianist Vadym Kholodenko

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In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.

Born in Kiev, Vadym Kholodenko was the winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. A student of the great Vera Gornostaeva in Moscow, the 27-year-old was also First Prize winner of the Maria Callas, Sendai, and Schubert competitions. Kholodenko is notably the first musician in his family, and he teaches at the Moscow Conservatory. Below is a transcript of our recent San Francisco conversation with the brilliant pianist, Vadym Kholodenko.

EH: For those who aren’t familiar with your musical background, please describe your musical upbringing. At what age did you begin thinking of the problem of piano technique and how to solve it ?

Kholodenko: Well, it all started at the age of six when my mother took me to music school. Her main thought at the time was simply that it was better for me to spend time with music than with a football (laughs). I have to confess that from the very first lesson, I never felt forced or pressured by my parents. It was my own intention to play and to practice, and I’m very grateful that my parents and teachers realized that I probably had some talent.

To be honest, I mostly played scales and some very simply studies by Moszkowski. Today, I warm-up with scales, arpeggios, and some very simple things that are very, very useful. I’m an assistant to my professor at the Moscow Conservatory, and while I cannot be with students too much due to my scheduled concerts, I find the old-fashioned ways to be very, very helpful.

EH: How is you musical memory ?

Kholodenko: Sometimes people ask me how much music I can memorize (laughs). Last year, over seven evenings in Ukraine, I played all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. That’s 11.5 hours of music. Of course, I try not to think about it too much, but it seems to stay in the fingers.

EH: That’s incredible. A question we ask every pianist - because every pianist has a slightly different hand - which is the most difficult Chopin Etude for your hand ?

Kholodenko: I should say all of Opus 10. I’ve played the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt, but compared to the Chopin Etudes, they’re nothing (laughs). This is an exaggeration, of course (laughs), but even the First Chopin etude is extremely difficult to play.

EH: I’m curious to know your personal feelings about Rachmaninoff, who was arguably the last universally-admired composer-pianist.

Kholodenko: The figure of Rachmaninoff is very special for me. Whenever I am working on a piece that Rachmaninoff has recorded, I always make a special effort to listen and study his recordings very carefully. I admire him on the very highest level. In my opinion, he was able to keep such incredible balance - having the soundest structure, yet maintaining flexibility - and combining it with the finest musical taste. His style is probably the one I would most like to follow in my own performances.

EH: One of the composers you’ve performed, a friend of Rachmaninoff’s, is Medtner. I would love to hear your thoughts on this magnificent composer, and why, for you, his music isn’t quite as well-known to the public.

Kholodenko: You know, this is a very sad issue for me, especially because Medtner is now not so well-known even in his native country. In my opinion, if you listen to his recordings, he was perhaps a pianist as great as Rachmaninoff. It’s not always possible to do it, but whenever I can, I do try to include Medtner in my programs. Not all of his works are of equal musical value, but some of the Sonatas and Fairy Tales, his concertos, are such beautiful music. These are real masterpieces.

EH: Being from Kiev, I must ask you about your thoughts on Vladimir Horowitz, or any of the other great artists who came from that area. Whose recordings do you find yourself returning to the most and who has most influenced your development over the years ?

Kholodenko: I’d have to say that the pianists who influenced me most were Emil Gilels and Glenn Gould. The sound of Emil Gilels is something that continues to amaze. On the other hand, I admire so much the musical structure of Gould, his phrasing, etc. I believe he contributed just about the most brilliant versions of some music.

Of course, I admire Horowitz. He’s very well-known for his performances of some technically difficult pieces – people are always impressed by that – but he was also a very deep, very serious musician, and unfortunately, in my opinion, this side of him has been a bit hidden by his technical brilliance.

EH: You studied with Vera Gornostaeva, whose musicianship and recordings many pianists admire and adore. Can you speak a little bit about this legendary artist ?

Kholodenko: Yes, of course! Gornostaeva had an enormous influence on my musical growth. I am so happy to have a small connection with that old-school world of piano-playing. It may not be the most well-polished playing, but it was always about the sound, always about the music itself. Gornostaeva taught me that it really is about having a dialogue on the stage, and that it has to be about communication.

Of course, Vera told me much about Neuhaus and his famous pupils. She actually taught Gilels’ daughter, so she was very well-known. It’s interesting that until 1917, the Moscow Conservatory had many teachers from the West, and once the Soviet Union was formed, these teachers had to stay, as they were no longer allowed to leave the country. So when somebody asks me if there is a difference between the Russian and Western schools of playing, of course there’s a difference. But it was all connected, too: Liszt taught Anton Rubinstein, who taught Siloti, who taught Rachmaninoff, etc.

EH: Last summer, you won one of the most prestigious music competitions in the world. What was your process of preparation for the Van Cliburn ? And does the late American pianist mean anything special to you ?

Kholodenko: The competition was very special for me. I think everybody felt Van’s presence at the competition. People would share their memories of his performances. My own teacher in Moscow actually still remembers his performance at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, how the audience admired him and his personality so much, and how happy they were that he won the top-prize. Of course there was controversy, but the end-result was good. I’ve known his recordings since childhood because my mother bought his LP recordings, and they’re just incredibly beautiful. I admire him very much, and it was just wonderful that over the three weeks, the audience experienced so much beautiful music in his name.

I began preparing for the competition about six months to a year before the competition. Before the prelims, there were live auditions in different cities. Many of the pieces I played were those I had played before - I’d have to be very brave to use completely fresh pieces (laughs) – and the interesting thing was bringing together the appropriate program for the competition. I discussed it with my professor for a long time, and it was interesting to hear the thoughts of different people on this matter.

EH: The incredible Cyprien Katsaris once said (interview) that there was a kind of academic playing that affected the aesthetics of pianism for generations, in a negative way. What are your thoughts on piano competitions in general ?

Kholodenko: This is a very interesting subject, actually. I’m not a very big fan of competitions. They often have little to do with real music-making, which should be experienced in an intimate chamber hall. But I do recognize that we live in the real-world, and competitions are necessary. There are nerves and very awful experiences before each round because of the pressure. It is not pleasant (laughs). However, you do grow, and you become stronger by going through these experiences. I don’t think it has a strong influence on the culture, though. My teacher told me about Grigory Sokolov, who was just 16 years-old when he played at the Tchaikovsky competition. He was a young boy who played brilliantly, and he is now one of the big figures of real music. Competitions did not seem to affect him negatively.

EH: You mentioned Glenn Gould earlier. In your opinion, is it possible for great performers to surpass the vision of a composer ?

Kholodenko: This is a complicated question. You know, Gould brought a kind of self-confidence, a strong view of Bach’s music. I’m not sure that it’s the way Bach imagined his music to be played, but I do believe Gould’s version is 100% truth, because it was developed so thoroughly, where every detail was accounted for. Of course, in my opinion, we’ve had some different views about Serkin’s Schubert Sonatas, Hamelin playing Medtner, etc. and if you feel that these are truths, then that’s beautiful. But I don’t think you can ever cheat an audience. The audience is smart, and every time we feel something, we know. A new vision for a composer, or his works, in many cases, is a subjective view. We feel the music ourselves, and this can never be the exact way that the composer felt. The composer likely did not think of the specific audience when he was writing either.

EH: If you feel comfortable answering, what are your thoughts on the current conflict in Ukraine right now ? I believe you still have family living there ?

Kholodenko: Thank you for asking, Elijah. My mother and grandmother are still living in Kiev, actually. I think Putin is very passionate about the idea of ‘empire’. Crimea was originally a very important place for the Russians, and the situation is probably a huge bonus for his next presidential election. Actually, this probably guarantees a fourth, fifth, and 150th presidential term for him. From this perspective, this is good for Putin's Russia. Putin's Russia needs power. There is a phantom pain for the separated parts of the USSR that is still in Russian blood.

For Ukraine, this is a tragedy. This is a total failure of the diplomatic section, failure of new government, failure of hope that something can change in Ukraine, and in Russia as well. But all of this is nothing compared to the tragedy of the people. This is not your average war: this is civil war. This is a war between nations who were in the Second World War. Together.

Of course, all of this is just lyrical tweet. War means war. Through all of the hysteria, I feel the weakness of my generation, in comparison with the generation of my grandmother. That generation saw and experienced real war.

EH: Vadym, thank you for sharing these thoughts. I wish the very best for you and your family.

Kholodenko: Thank you very much, Elijah. It was my pleasure.

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