Entertainment & Arts

Q&A: After deaths of his daughters, ages 1 and 5, pianist Vadym Kholodenko returns to the stage

Vadym Kholodenko
After family tragedy in March, Vadym Kholodenko has returned to the concert stage and will perform Saturday in Northridge.
(Ellen Appel / The Van Cliburn Foundation)

Few really know how they would react to horrific tragedy. For pianist Vadym Kholodenko, shutting down was not an option.

On March 17, Kholodenko, who won the gold medal at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013, found his two daughters, ages 1 and 5, slain at home in Benbrook, Texas. Kholodenko’s estranged wife, Sofya Tsygankova, was charged with two counts of capital murder and has since pleaded not guilty.

Kholodenko, 29, had moved to Fort Worth in 2014, leaving war-torn Ukraine for the place where he had won the Van Cliburn competition. The couple, married for five years, filed for divorce last fall and had been living separately since August 2015. Near the end of a memorial service for his two daughters,the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, Kholodenko played a movement from Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 with string players from the Fort Worth Symphony.

Kholodenko withdrew from several concerts, returning to the stage a month later for an appearance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In advance of his concert Saturday at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge, Kholodenko agreed to an email interview with The Times — his most extensive since the death of his daughters. In this edited conversation, the pianist didn’t speak directly about the recent tragedy and instead focused on his upcoming concert, his future plans and the question of whether music holds healing power.


Composer Alexander Scriabin, whose work you are performing, was a man who suffered the loss of several children during his lifetime, but he kept going. Is he an inspiration for you?

In general, the figure of Scriabin is always tied with his music heritage in my mind. His personal tragedies and the way he kept going through them are perfect examples of a strong spirit inside the man, and I thought about that a lot during the past few months. In any case, I believe that music is not necessarily obliged to express feelings in our human sense. Playing the music of Scriabin has a different meaning for me, and I don’t implicate here my own intrinsic feelings and experience. Everyone has his own path of life, and we all should go through whatever life gives to us with dignity.

Is it a coincidence that the all-Liszt first half of your Saturday program coincides with the annual American Liszt Society conference at Cal State Northridge?

When I was invited by the Liszt Society, I already had a picture in mind of the program I’d like to present. Of course Liszt is not a coincidence. First of all, he is one of my favorite composers. And he is a perfect match for Alexander Scriabin, which I will play in the second half of the concert.


Why is Liszt so important to pianists in general, and to you in particular?

Liszt is the figure of utmost importance in piano world. He brought piano to a new level of musical expression, he enriched sound palette of piano, and he transcribed and popularized many incredible works of Schubert, Schumann, etc. He was a Roman tribune of piano music. His inspirational figure is one of my lighthouses in the art.

Your program shows Liszt not only as a virtuosic technician, but also as a deeply emotional and expressive artist, especially in the simplicity of his Consolation No. 3 (S. 172). What does virtuosity mean to you?

The word virtuosic has the Latin root virtus, i.e. valor. Valor is in my opinion the cornerstone of performing onstage. Nowadays the word virtuosic has gained some additional connotations due to confusing valor with something else. Nevertheless we have to have the best examples of a virtuoso in our minds, one like Ferenc [Franz] Liszt.

What does Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca Nos. 104 and 123, which are on your program, communicate to listeners?

It’s really difficult to explain in plain words what music is trying to communicate to us. But we have Petrarca’s verses, and this makes our work easier. These two works are hymns of love, very ecstatic and affective. I love Horowitz’s recording of the Sonetto No. 104, the way he is playing it with nobility and dignity.

Vadym Kholodenko at home in Fort Worth in 2014 with wife Sofya Tsygankova and daughters Nika, left, and Michela.
Vadym Kholodenko at home in Fort Worth in 2014 with wife Sofya Tsygankova and daughters Nika, left, and Michela.
(Joyce Marshall / Star-Telegram )

Do you feel a need to keep going because as the first gold medal winner of the Van Cliburn competition from the Ukraine you also represent something larger than yourself?


It’s obvious that art doesn’t have any frontiers. Born in Ukraine, I’ve studied in Moscow and clearly represent the Russian school of piano playing. I wish Ukraine, even considering current troubles in country, would pay more attention to its citizens.

Are you bringing something deeper to your Liszt/Scriabin program than you did last year?

I don’t know how to measure deepness of music. I try to be sincere on stage and play what currently touches me the most.

What made you choose the piano and not, say, the violin?

I began with the violin, but the sound of the amateur piano player won over the amateur string player’s sound.

Are your parents musicians?

No, my parents weren’t musicians, but my mother very much appreciated classical music. It was her decision to bring me to musical school, and I am endlessly grateful to her.

How important was your move to Moscow?


I moved to Moscow because of professor Vera Gornostaeva, who invited me to her class after our encounter in the Maria Callas competition in Athens. Moving to Moscow I consider as one of the most important steps in my musical life.

Who was your most influential teacher? Did you have any piano heroes growing up?

The most influential musical teacher in my life was Vera Gornostaeva. Her figure grows with time, and I began to understand more and more the way she was teaching. They were not only dry piano lessons, but it was more about how one can find inspiration by himself. They were encounters with a musician, who besides everything else was carrying the so-called “old school” spirit of the golden age of piano playing, and this is what I try to transform in myself and bring on further. My piano heroes remain the same since childhood — Sviatoslav Richter and Arthur Rubinstein.

Did winning the gold medal give you a solid beginning for your career, or was it too much pressure too soon?

Gold medal of Cliburn Competition gave me a chance, and I am grateful to Fort Worth for this rare opportunity of being independent in building my own musical life.

Was living in the Ukraine very different from Texas?

It’s better to say that life in the USA is very different from anything else in Europe. And Texas is very different and unique in the entire country. I met many great people here, and I never had such a reception anywhere but in Texas.

Once you finish your outstanding performance commitments, will you take some time off?

With my general manager, I work very carefully on my concert schedule. I have a time for vacation, time for learning new repertoire and a good number of concerts.

What are your plans for the future?

I am going to complete a cycle of Etudes-Tableaux of Rachmaninoff, work on some Beethoven sonatas (I played all of them five years ago and am fostering the idea to do this once again) and many other things. They’re going to be very interesting musical seasons, and I look forward to it even more eagerly than before.

Has the meaning of music in your life changed?

Meaning of music never changed in my life, it just became fuller and stronger.

Does music offer an effective healing, or is it just a temporary escape from our troubles?

Music is an enormous world next to us, and we, either performers or listeners, can only unveil a little bit of it. Music contains literally everything inside itself. It could be an escape or healing for someone, but its significance for people would never be exhausted. Music is born and dies immediately onstage, and we cannot seize and somehow conserve it. This is the reason why people go to live concerts, to experience these few moments of inexplicable bliss.


Vadym Kholodenko

Where: Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $30-$60

Info: (818) 677-3000 or



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