Tom Jacobson is what you would call a piano connoisseur.
Twice now he has traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, for an event among the top of its kind in the world: the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Held every four years for players hoping to break into the rarefied ranks of professional concert pianists, the competition produces three medalists — gold, silver and bronze — who immediately become sought-after soloists on the concert circuit.
At the most recent competition in June, Jacobson was sitting in on a preliminary round when he heard a pianist who made him sit up and take notice: a 26-year-old Ukrainian named Vadym Kholodenko.
"He played Stravinsky's 'Petrushka' ballet, and at the end there was an explosion in the hall," says Jacobson, who lives in San Diego. "There was chaos, pandemonium. It was the birth of a star."
Kholodenko went on to win the gold medal.
Almost immediately, Fresno State piano professor Andreas Werz got on the phone. As artistic director of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series at the university, Werz has built up a relationship of more than 20 years with the Cliburn organization.
Sometimes it takes a couple of years, but he can usually book the medalists. (Most finalists get managed by the competition for three years following their medals.) His question: When can we get Kholodenko to Fresno?
The answer: mighty soon. The pianist will perform Wednesday at the Fresno State Concert Hall, just months after his big win.
"The great thing is that we're going to get the gold medalist right after the competition," Werz says.
For Kholodenko, who moved from Kiev in Ukraine to Russia to study at the Moscow P.I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory, the finals were a whirlwind.
"Of course, I was nervous a lot before, during and even a little bit after the competition," he writes in an email interview from Arcata. "This is like a big shock for the nervous system. I'm very grateful to the 'stage mothers' who helped a lot backstage."
Founded in 1962, the competition was named for Van Cliburn, who had won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition four years before. The two competitions generally are considered the top two piano competitions in the world, Werz says, with the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels a close third.
A screening jury travels the world listening to promising pianists. The top 30 are invited to Fort Worth.
In the 2009 competition, there was a tie for the gold medal. Keyboard Concerts presented both winners: Nobuyuki Tsujii and Haochen Zhang.
Kholodenko says he had heard of the Van Cliburn competition at his conservatory, of course, but never dreamed he would be a part of it.
"At that time for me it was unbelievable even the thought of participating in this great event," he says.
There's no question he made a big splash in the finals. Mozart's Concerto in C Major includes a cadenza that gives options to a pianist. (You can choose from previously written cadenzas or provide your own.) Kholodenko used a cadenza he wrote on the plane on his way from Moscow to Fort Worth.
"That's daring," Werz says of the move.
At his Fresno concert, Kholodenko's program will include Rachmaninoff's Sonata in D Minor.
"Rachmaninoff is definitely one of my favorite composers," Kholodenko says. "As well as Bach, Schumann, Hindemith, Medtner and many more."
Keyboard Concerts often presents the great pianists of our time. One of the fun things about seeing a recent Van Cliburn gold medalist is that you could be listening to the next great superstar. Or not.
"There are no guarantees," Werz says. "Some of them vanish after some time. But once you've been at that point to get this kind of visibility and recognition, and you get three years of bookings, that's when you get name recognition."
One person who will be in the Fresno audience has no doubt that Kholodenko is a name to remember.
Jacobson, the San Diego fan, has since followed Kholodenko to concerts in Irvine and the Bay Area. He and his wife already have their tickets for the Fresno engagement.
"He plays with a lot of power," Jacobson says of Kholodenko. "He's going to be one of the great pianists of the future."
Vadym Kholodenko, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, Fresno State Concert Hall. keyboardconcerts.com, (559) 278-2337. $18, $12 seniors, $5 students.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.