The Keys to life

Sunday, May 13, 2001

The 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 Ennis

(c) Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2001



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 to escape.

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 breath.

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 sighed.

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 gold.

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 would live.

"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 changed.

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 condition.

"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 pool.

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 and marketable.

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 we are
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 her.

"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 wings.

(c) Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2001