Three years ago, an intense, dark-haired man sat down at a grand piano with no sheet music to show the world why he — and none of his 132 rivals — should win the prestigious, quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth. In the competition’s preliminary round, Vadym Kholodenko, a 26-year-old native of Ukraine, blew through a piece by the minimalist composer John Adams, then turned to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor — a challenging work that typically exceeds 30 minutes and grapples with the devil’s influence on our lives. And Kholodenko made it look like a breeze.
Kholodenko went on to win the Cliburn’s 2013 gold medal — earning $50,000, recording and management deals, and a string of concert dates that ran three years. But now the young virtuoso’s life has been struck by tragedy: In what some are calling part of a “curse” related to the Cliburn competition, Kholodenko’s estranged wife Sofya Tsygankova has been charged with murdering their two young children.
On March 17, Kholodenko found his daughters — Nika Kholodenko, 5, and Michela Kholodenko, 1 — dead at the home in suburban Fort Worth where he formerly lived with his family. The children’s bodies had no visible trauma, and the cause of their death is not yet known, as the Associated Press reported. But Tsygankova was home with her dead daughters — in “an extreme state of distress,” as authorities noted — and appeared to have been the victim of a stabbing. Days after she was treated and began a mental evaluation, police said Tsygankova killed her daughters before attempting to stab herself, and she now faces capital murder charges as investigators say they are looking into alleged “homicidal violence.”
“I’m not going to discuss what she told us. We do have reason to believe the stab wounds were self-inflicted,” David Babcock, police commander in Benbrook, Texas, told WFAA. “She’s still undergoing the mental evaluation. But she’s also held on our charges as well.”
Like her husband, Tsygankova, 31, was a competitive pianist. She was born in Russia “to a musical family,” one online biography noted, and “began to study music at age 6, and at age 9 won her first all-Russian contest.” She married Kholodenko in 2010, and the family relocated to Fort Worth after Kholodenko won the Cliburn. Kholodenko was often off performing; Tsygankova was committed to learning English.
“I have so many friends here and people are so kind to me, so I made the decision to stay,” Kholodenko said in 2014. “I would like to be part of this country.” He added: “It’s better for my daughters to raise [them] here.”
Tsygankova said the couple was motivated to move by a skin condition for which her older daughter couldn’t get proper treatment, as well as by her desire to see her husband more often.
“We didn’t see a lot of Vadym in Moscow when he’s traveling a lot,” Tsygankova said. “. . . It would be impossible for him to come home for one day between concerts.” She added: “We wanted to be together, with Vadym, to be a family, and for us, maybe it was the only choice for us to come here.”
At first, the family found lodging with Imelda Castro, an immigrant from the Philippines who hosted Kholodenko during the Cliburn competition.
“I know how difficult it is not to have anybody when you are new in a place,” Castro said. “They are very good kids. . . . They are very easy to host and they like my food! That’s important.”
And the young couple was grateful.
“It was incredible hospitality to have guests for half a year in your house,” Tsygankova said.
However, classical pianists, particularly those embroiled in the cutthroat world of piano competitions, are not strangers to passionate music played for scrutinizing audiences under stressful conditions on the road. Something went wrong.
The couple moved into their own home in 2014, but filed for divorce in November of last year. Kholodenko moved out, but continued to pick up his daughters in the morning. Police said they were called to the home on two occasions before the young girls’ deaths, but didn’t offer further details.
“The loss of my children will be with me forever,” Kholodenko said in a statement to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “But I would like to say that I feel the support of the Fort Worth community and all people who are sending me messages all over the world . . . Wherever I go after this tragedy my heart will stay with the people here of Fort Worth and my daughters will rest in this soil.”
“The Cliburn family is mourning the loss of the precious Kholodenko girls,” Maggie Estes, a spokesman for the competition, said last week. “We are heartbroken and offer our prayers to Vadym and all affected by this overwhelming tragedy.”
Some said, however, that winning the Cliburn comes with a “curse.”
“That usually refers to careers briefly boosted by winning one of the top prizes in the quadrennial contest, then sinking into second-tier status, or worse,” Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News wrote.
Cantrell noted tragic outcomes for three Cliburn winners: Steven De Groote, a South African who won the gold in 1977 only to crash a small plane outside Phoenix in 1985, suffering terrible injuries before dying of AIDS in 1989 after receiving a transfusion of tainted blood; Alexei Sultanov, a reportedly difficult teenager who won the Cliburn in 1989 only to suffer strokes and die in 2005; and José Feghali, who shot himself in 2014.
“He took things to the absolute edge of the cliff, and it was very exciting to hear,” a Cliburn administrator said after Sultanov’s death. “He wasn’t afraid to take a chance on stage, and there aren’t a lot of pianists who do that. But that worked for him, and it worked against him.”
Cantrell said that winning the Cliburn comes with accolades, but it also comes with a grind.
“Some performers thrive for years in this rat race, but others become burned out and resentful,” he wrote. “Lengthy periods away from home take tolls on families and relationships, too. Kholodenko was often on tour for long stretches, leaving his wife, newly moved from Russia to Fort Worth, with a young daughter and a baby. You can imagine the stresses.”
Kholodenko and Tsygankova, after they relocated to Fort Worth, appeared ready to overcome such challenges. Though what happened is not yet clear, it is clear that they didn’t.
“It’s very important for me to be here so that I can hear my husband and how he’s practicing,” Tsygankova said in 2014. “Most of the time, his playing teaches me how to do it, and it changes me as a musician also and makes me better.”