May 27, 2001
Medal-winning Cliburn pianist Sultanov fighting his way back after
By Nancy Kruh
(c) The Dallas Morning News, 2001
FORT WORTH For each of the 30 young
musicians now vying in the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano
Competition in Fort Worth, the event must seem the ultimate test: going
head to head during 17 pressure-cooked days, trying to win the favor of
the audience, critics and jury.
But for Alexei Sultanov, the fiery
Uzbekistani who took the gold medal at the 1989 Cliburn Competition,
there are other tests unimaginably more difficult and only recently
In late February, a massive stroke
left the 31-year-old Fort Worth resident in a coma, near death. Days
later, as he regained consciousness, doctors determined that he had lost
the use of his left arm and leg. Financially devastated by mounting
bills, he now makes his temporary home at the Baylor Institute for
Rehabilitation in Dallas, fighting to resurrect his limbs and his life
as a concert pianist.
"It's easy to get somebody back to
work when all they have to do is move a box from Point A to Point B,"
says Dr. Mary Carlile, his physician at the institute. "But Alexei is
brilliant. ... It's one of life's great tragedies and great ironies to
have this devastating event happen to him."
It may be months or years before it is
known how much Mr. Sultanov will recover. But his progress so far has
been encouraging, his doctors and physical therapists say.
His family is certain he will be on
stage again someday. "He didn't finish his mission," says his wife of
almost 10 years, Dace (pronounced "dot-sa"). "I know he will be well."
Although the stroke has impaired his
speech, Mr. Sultanov communicates his determination daily in dozens of
ways. There have been no tears, no self-pity. Every exercise his
therapists ask of him, he attempts without complaint. At a keyboard, he
has proved with his strong and dexterous right hand that his musical
ability remains intact. "It's here," he says, using the right hand to
tap his ear, then his forehead.
Whatever he accomplishes, will be
because of the same iron will and self-confidence that earned him
Cliburn gold 12 years ago, family and friends say. "When Alexei came to
the Cliburn, he wanted to win, and he wouldn't take 'no' for an answer,"
says Denise Mullins, the Cliburn Foundation's artistic administrator at
the time. "He pushed himself as far as he could push and probably
farther than even he knew he could push."
Since early childhood, Mr. Sultanov's
life has been a series of extraordinary challenges and demands.
Identified as a musical prodigy by age 3, he made his formal debut when
he was 9; he left his home in Tashkent in his early teens to study at
the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. One of four Cliburn competitors
from the Soviet Union in 1989, he was the youngest in the field of 38
pianists and at 5 feet 2 inches, he also was the smallest. But once he
performed his volcanic selections of Liszt, Prokofiev and Chopin, he
quickly became known for his huge sound. Audiences raved about his
originality and the jury's decision was unanimous, but critics were
split in their response.
Depending on the review, Mr.
Sultanov's play was either passionate or reckless; youthfully exuberant
or immature; imaginative or garish. "He took things to the absolute edge
of the cliff, and it was very exciting to hear," Ms. Mullins says. "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
Off stage, his life was known to echo
his tempestuous performances a result, Ms. Mullins says, of an
artist's temperament and the pressures of a solo career. After his
victory, Mr. Sultanov chose to remain in Fort Worth rather than return
to the Soviet Union and almost certain army conscription. But going from
being a sheltered music student to bearer of the Cliburn mantle and
recipient of an estimated $200,000 in concert engagements proved to be
a change he wasn't entirely prepared for.
He arrived in this country knowing
almost no English and not even carrying a wallet. "When we first drove
him to our house and he saw our other car in the garage, he asked, 'Who
else lives here?'" recalls his host "mother," Susan Wilcox, whose
husband, Jon, is fluent in Russian. "He really had to learn everything
about our culture."
Within three months, Mr. Sultanov had
taught himself English, even mastering slang and word play. Adjusting to
the life of a jet-setting concert performer was another matter. "When
you have to play a concert in Warsaw, then hop a plane to London, do
three radio interviews in English, then play another concert, it's an
exhaustion you simply can't foresee," Ms. Mullins says. "There were
times when he was difficult; I think he was tired, and I think he was
frustrated. He loves to enjoy his life. He wanted to see his family. He
wanted to see his friends."
Most of all, Mr. Sultanov wanted to be
with Dace Abele, the Latvian cello student whom he met at the Moscow
Conservatory and brought to Fort Worth in 1991. Since they wed that year
on Halloween, they have been inseparable, sharing a modest home in the
southwest side of the city. "Their love and devotion for each other is
just amazing," Ms. Wilcox says. "She's the type of person that everyone
connects to and everyone loves."
Together, the Sultanovs have built a
life filled with friends, travel and, of course, music. Still, even for
an unusually gifted artist, making a living as a solo pianist is
"incredibly difficult, almost impossible" for all but the six or eight
household names, says Stuart Isacoff, editor of Piano Today
magazine. "There are thousands of pianists graduating from schools every
year, and most of them become teachers. It's just a tough life."
Mr. Sultanov completed his
Cliburn-negotiated concert dates by 1993, then struck out on his own
with independent management. Like the majority of concert pianists, his
career has moved to an ever-changing tempo. Over the years, he has
recorded eight CDs. In this country, he has a small but steady fan base,
and his spine-tingling play has built a huge and avid following in
Poland and Japan.
Last year, Ms. Sultanov took over her
husband's management, and she had put together a four-month concert tour
for later this year dates they were counting on to keep them afloat
But those plans evaporated in
February. Woozy from the flu, Mr. Sultanov fell and struck his head. A
week later, on Feb. 26, he walked into a neurologist's office almost
unable to speak. Within hours, he was in surgery to stop internal
bleeding that was putting pressure on his brain. He awoke with no
discernible impairment, but nausea from the anesthesia triggered dry
heaving. The strain put on tender blood vessels caused the massive
stroke. Soon, he was back in surgery, his life in the balance.
In the waiting room, Dr. Edward
Kramer, the neurologist who is also a family friend, gravely explained
the situation to Mr. Sultanov's wife. She clenched his arm. "You have to
save him; he is half of me," she told the doctor. He recalls: "You never
have seen such an intense look in someone's eyes."
Since then, Ms. Sultanov, who is 32,
has been at her husband's side almost every waking hour. "In those early
days, her love and devotion were almost incandescent," Dr. Kramer says.
Ms. Sultanov says she indulged in
tears at first, but now, there is no time to cry. Off stage, she long
has been her husband's right hand; today she must also be his left. His
own is curled into a ball by nerves gone haywire.
Mr. Sultanov was moved to the Baylor
Institute on March 22, and he is expected to remain there until Friday,
when he will go to out-patient care. Because the Sultanovs have little
insurance and no income, the renowned facility has made available some
indigent funding so he can get the intensive therapy his special
circumstances require. Foundation bylaws prohibit the Cliburn
organization from instigating any sort of fund raising. A fund has been
established for Mr. Sultanov at a Fort Worth bank.
An accomplished cook, Ms. Sultanov
hopes to start a catering business once her husband makes significant
progress. "I will do everything," she says. "I'm not afraid of doing
In the meantime, she and her
father-in-law, Faizul Sultanov, a Moscow cellist who now stays at the
rehab institute with his son, cheer any measure of improvement. Two
weeks ago, his laugh returned. A day later, he used his left arm to
arm-wrestle during physical therapy. His speech is gradually improving,
and he now is able to stand on his own for short periods.
Those who are treating Mr. Sultanov
marvel at his strength. "That's going to help him a lot," says Henry
Mejia, one of his physical therapists. "I didn't think he was so strong
he's so small but he is. He's a good, strong-willed young man."
Dr. Carlile said the full extent of
what has happened is still sinking in for her patient. "His dad has said
at times that Alexei will say, 'Is this a dream?'" she says. Other
times, Mr. Sultanov worries that he's not making a living. Softly,
haltingly, he apologizes to his wife, his father and the stream of
visiting friends for what he is putting them through. They beg him not
to worry. They implore him to relax.
More than anything, his muscles need
to relearn how to relax. Often, in frustration, Mr. Sultanov's right
hand gropes for his left, working to pull the fingers straight. Every
day, he selects a piece from his repertoire, then practices by imagining
himself playing. "Keeping the music alive," he says.
Doctors wont predict how much of his
ability will return. We think he has potential to get a lot better,
said Dr. Carlile. Hes very motivated and he works very hard. He never
balks at anything we ask him to do.
His tiny room at the rehab facility is
now wallpapered with get-well wishes in an assortment of languages from
family, friends, professional colleagues and fans. "We are close to you
in every moment by our prayers and good thinks," one fan from Poland has
written in fractured English. You are the sun
warming us, brings
joyful and happiness!
To those who love him, there is no
contemplation but that his music will one day return. It will be his
human spirit that will pull him out of this his stubbornness and
tenacity, Ms. Mullins said. He has the strongest mindset of anyone I
have ever known. He loves to communicate with people. He loves to play
the piano. He loves to perform. He really wants to get well. If he wants
to do something, he will do it.
Nancy Kruh is a Dallas free-lance