Keeping The Music Alive

May 27, 2001
Medal-winning Cliburn pianist Sultanov fighting his way back after stroke

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 encountered.

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 him."

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 financially.

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 anything."

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 won’t predict how much of his ability will return. “We think he has potential to get a lot better,” said Dr. Carlile. “He’s 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 writer.