The Keys to life
Sunday, May 13, 2001
keys to life: Stroke impairs '89 Cliburn gold medalist Alexei Sultanov's
ability to play, but it can't silence his spirit or his family's
By Mary Rogers
Photography by Ron
(c) Fort Worth
He lies heavily against the
pillows, eyes squeezed shut. The hair above his left temple is growing
back. The surgeons didn't remove the thick, dark braid that he has been
growing for the past several years, and it rests against his
shoulder.His right hand moves restlessly across an imagined keyboard.
Perhaps he plays Liszt's `Mephisto Waltz' or maybe it's a Mozart sonata
or something from Chopin or Beethoven. It could be one of his own
compositions, some jazz or even his own arrangement of `La Traviata'.
His left hand is a tight fist.
The silent music rises
through the ether, reminding heaven that he is here, a prisoner longing
Some might say
that Alexei Sultanov is a magician who bewitches his audiences and sends
them soaring into the uncharted territory of celestial rapture -- or
diving into the muddy watercolor realm of melancholy. Some critics say
he is a rebel whose musical interpretations are too unorthodox, too
crass and too immature to be considered great.
In fact, Alexei is a fearless performer, a concert pianist who
stirsemotion wherever he goes. He has a large and enthusiastic following
of international devotees who adore him, but his career might have been
different if he hadn't won the Van Cliburn International Piano
Competition in 1989.
He was 19 that year, a puzzling mix of shy schoolboy and bold performer.
He wore a white turtleneck under a dark suit too warm for Texas in May.
His socks were white. His thick, dark hair was a shaggy, shoulder-length
mane that almost covered his dark eyes. There was the faintest shadow of
a boyish mustache across his upper lip that made him appear all the more
youthful, but his command of the keyboard made the audience hold its
His fingers flashed over the keys. The sweat dripped into his eyes and
ran down his smooth cheeks. His hair grew damp. The music thundered and
whispered and groaned. He shut his eyes as if enraptured by the sound.
A piano string snapped, but Alexei played on. He leaned close to the
piano and caressed the keyboard as if it were a lover, and the piano
When the music ended, he bowed low to the audience, then took a backward
step and pointed to the piano as if to share the spotlight with a fellow
performer -- and maybe, from that moment on, Alexei was meant to win the
Now, at 31, Alexei is a veteran of the international concert circuit who
has played hundreds of concerts in the world's music capitals, including
New York, London, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Vienna and Seoul. He is also a man
struggling to reclaim his life and his art after a massive stroke two
months ago left him teetering between life and death.
He has known since childhood that his destiny would be forever tied to
the piano -- and the stage, but on Feb. 26, his life took an unexpected
and abrupt turn.
A subdural hematoma -- a tumorlike blood clot outside a blood vessel --
almost took his life. Doctors aren't sure why it formed, but they are
certain that it is not the first time. Only five years ago, Alexei
suffered a small stroke that didn't disrupt his performance schedule but
showed up on a CAT scan.
The February bleed was different. It was potentially deadly.
Surgeons at Osteopathic Medical Center of Texas in Fort Worth rushed to
remove a blood clot on his brain, but, that night, another hemorrhage
plunged him into an even more desperate situation. Again doctors
scrambled to snatch him back from edge of death.
Outside the operating room, Alexei's wife, Dace Sultanov, 32, waited and
paced. She may have prayed and cried, but she never doubted that he
"He is half my body," she says. "How can you separate half the body from
itself? Alexei is all that matters now. We can fight. We can love. It
does not matter. We must be together."
She will not -- cannot -- believe that Alexei's destiny could be
For her, Alexei is the music.
A patient at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas, Alexei is
struggling to relearn the basics of how to walk, how to dress, how to
brush his teeth and how to read. He wants his fans to know about his
"Tell them everything," he says in a hoarse whisper that is barely
audible. "All the good. All the bad. I cannot play hide and seek."
His doctor, Mary Carlile, the medical director for traumatic brain
injury at Baylor, is "cautiously optimistic" about his recovery. She
points out that his left side is "very weak and his vision impaired."
In fact, she believes that he may have lost all sight in his left eye.
In spite of the trauma, Alexei still speaks and understands both Russian
and English. He listens to music and occasionally plays on a
battery-operated keyboard, using only his right hand. "He's hard-wired
for that and plays beautifully with only one hand," says Carlile.
There is a rhythm to the days now. Dace comes early every morning with
bits of chocolate for the nurses and flowers from the garden and more
emails from fans for Alexei. The walls are papered with emails and
get-well cards from fans around the world. As soon as breakfast is
cleared away, he begins the rounds of therapy sessions. There is speech
therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy and hydrotherapy in the
Every day, a message arrives from Moscow. It is expected now, a familiar
part of the routine. Alexei's mother, Natalia Sultanov, fills the paper
with large hand-lettered print. Each page contains only a few letters of
the Russian alphabet. She writes a few words beside each character. More
come each day. These are taped to the wall with the emails.
"A is for Alexei. Endlessly lovable son, we are praying for your
recovery. B is for brother, Sergei. Dear and loving son, may God give
you health and happiness ... D is for Dace, the angel savior, for
Alexei," she writes.
She did not say that Dace is the bedrock beneath the shifting sand of
their lives. She did not need to.
Dace Sultanov is all shocking blond hair and gray-blue eyes the color of
a Baltic lake. Her pale skin is smooth and her quick laugh is deep and
throaty, the sound of a woman who has left girlhood behind.
She is a true believer, that rare spirit who trusts beyond
understanding. She insists that Alexei will play again -- not just for
himself or for her, but for an audience.
Alexei's father, Faizul Sultanov, hurried from Russia weeks ago to be
with his son. The Russian government forbids two family members from
leaving the country together, Dace explains. Faizul will go home in a
few weeks and Alexei's mother will come.
In the meantime, Faizul sleeps on a cot in the corner of the crowded
hospital room to be near Alexei around the clock. Every day, he hauls
Alexei from the bed and helps his son move about the room. First, the
right foot, then, the left. Some mornings, they sing together --
sometimes the scales, sometimes Russian children's songs.
He knows all about encouraging this son. He and his wife fanned the
spark of musical genius they saw early in Alexei. When Alexei was only
6, he began lessons in Tashkent with Tamara Popovitch, a taskmaster and
now one of Alexei's most trusted advisers.
Recently, she was in New York and when she learned of Alexei's illness,
she flew to his side. "There is only one Alexei," she says through an
interpreter, but Alexei seems not to hear.
When Alexei was a child, she arranged for him to have lessons at the
Moscow Conservatory several times a year. Alexei, accompanied by one of
his parents, traveled by train from Uzbekistan for these lessons. It was
an enormous expense and huge sacrifice, but it paid off, and in his teen
years, Alexei was accepted at the Moscow Conservatory.
Faizul is a musician, too, a cellist. He understands the life of an
artist, the delicate measures of Life's song.
He nods. Yes. Yes. Alexei will play again.
He and Dace mean to encourage the man in the bed -- but there is
something else here, something mysterious and powerful. It can't be
called by any single word, but it vibrates through the room like the low
hum of a tuning fork. It is Dace's steadfast belief that Alexei will not
simply survive -- but that he will triumph.
Dace was not there the night Alexei won the Cliburn gold. She did not
see him leap from his seat and hold his fists above his head in a
jubilant victory salute. She didn't watch as he bounded onto the stage
and hefted a silver loving cup into the air. She didn't hear him later
joke that it should be filled with wine.
Dace was still in Russia when Alexei began the dizzy 200-concert tour
that began after the Cliburn and stretched over the next two years.
There were music camps and performances, talk shows and dinner parties.
Amiable and curious, Alexei lacked the social confidence to "work a
room," but patrons were drawn to him and some whispered that he was that
unique treasure -- a youthful, attractive artist who was both passionate
Even the famous wanted to be close to him. One night after appearing on
the David Letterman Show, Alexei was invited to play privately for the
legendary Vladimir Horowitz. It was a memorable highlight of the young
Russian's life. They met in Horowitz's New York apartment.
They spoke Russian and played the piano together. Alexei told him the
story of meeting Dace at a Horowitz concert at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre.
Dace was only a girl of about 15, a cello student at the Moscow
Conservatory herself, the afternoon she met Alexei. It was a fateful --
and romantic -- meeting.
She smiles now at that memory. Horowitz, the celebrated pianist, was
playing at the Bolshoi and a crowd of some 15 music students wanted to
see the great man perform. No tickets were left, and so the little band
climbed to the roof of an adjoining building and jumped one by one to
the sloping roof of the theater.
"It was a rainy day. I was fortunate and unfortunate at the same time,"
Dace says. "My foot slipped and somebody grabbed me -- somebody whom I
liked before, somebody whom I knew, but he didn't know me. Alexei tells
the story now, `I grabbed the girl. I looked at the girl. It was not bad
-- so I saved her.' "
The students climbed through the theater's attic space and found
themselves above the stage at the Bolshoi, looking down through the
magnificent chandelier. "It was so beautiful. You can see through the
crystals Horowitz's hands moving," Dace says as she plays imaginary
piano keys. Her eyes are shut and she sways slightly. She blinks, then
smiles. "This is the first time Alexei and I are talking. The first time
meeting. It is amazing."
From that moment on, the two seemed destined to be together -- for
better or for worse, but that would come later.
If Alexei's life was busy in the first years after the Cliburn win, it
may have also been lonely, says Denise Mullins, who was then working for
the Cliburn, managing Alexei's engagements. But she also admits that
this is a newfound sympathy. Their relationship was strained to the
breaking point when Alexei refused to leave Moscow and play at the
important Linz Festival in 1990.
"This was a big-deal festival," Mullins says. "A European manager was
going to be there. Conductors were coming to hear him. The whole thing
was going to be on television. He didn't want to leave Moscow, because
he wanted me to bring his girlfriend, Dace, to the U.S. for a visit and
her visa hadn't arrived in Moscow yet. He wasn't going to leave without
"I was very angered by this and so were the people at the Linz. We
didn't know at that time, they planned to get married. We just thought
it was a visit.
"Anyway, he wouldn't leave without her and he missed a very important
engagement because he so wanted her to be part of his life.
"In retrospect, I have to respect his decision. His priorities were
different than mine. Actually, they were good for each other. Dace was
certainly good for him. He got so much better when she came. She was a
very grounding influence."
Soon after, Dace arrived in Fort Worth on a tourist visa and stayed --
like Alexei -- at the home of Susan and Jon Wilcox, the host family that
had provided housing for Alexei during the Cliburn competition. In 1989,
the Wilcoxes thought they were making a three-week commitment to house a
competitor. That arrangement had stretched into a two-year run while
Alexei completed the Cliburn-managed concert tour. Before it was over,
the Wilcoxes thought of Alexei as their son.
It was their house he came back to when the concerts were over. Susan
calls Alexei "one of the most generous" people she has ever met, a
sentiment echoed by everyone who knows him. "He'd give you the shirt off
his back. If you admire something he has, he just gives it to you," says
Dr. Edward Kramer, a close friend and the physician whom the Sultanovs
turned to first when the stroke hit in February.
"When Alexei won at the Cliburn, he didn't speak any English. He had
never had more than $1 in his pocket at one time. He didn't know how to
do the simplest things like make change. He couldn't travel by himself
and suddenly he had all these concert dates. We just decided we couldn't
stop helping then," says Susan.
In 1991, on the day before the visa expired, Alexei and Dace were
married by a justice of the peace at the Tarrant County Courthouse after
a judge caught between sessions waived the waiting period. Naturally,
they went home to the Wilcox house and settled in, but after several
months they dipped into Alexei's savings gleaned from concerts and
bought their own modest home on the city's southwest side. They share
the place with several cats and iguana.
Red roses bloom in the garden there and now Dace brings bouquets to
Alexei as a reminder of the world beyond this cramped hospital cocoon.
She kisses his forehead and whispers words of love to him -- reminding
him of what it's like to fly, promising him that she can still see his
(c) Fort Worth