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While trying to please audiences, pianist often runs afoul of critics


Alexei Sultanov was mugged on the way to becoming famous. The then-19-year-old Soviet pianist wasn't actually assaulted, of course -- with his Popeye-sized forearms and third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, the diminutive Sultanov would unpleasantly surprise any criminal. But two years ago he was a favorite whipping boy of many American critics after he won first prize in Fort Worth, Texas' Van Cliburn Competition.

"Critics generally like boring pianists," says Sultanov, who will give a recital tonight at the University of Maryland in College Park. "You know -- the kind who play so beautifully with perfect phrases and perfect tone. When I hear people like that I often feel like saying, 'You play so beautifully, but please stop.' "

In Fort Worth, no one else played so loudly, or so softly; no one else played as fast or as slow; and no one else so excited the audience or so impressed the jury. Everyone loved him -- except the critics, who said Sultanov was, at best, immature and, at worst, a banger.

As the tour that followed his victory was followed by a chorus of critical carping, an older pianist -- at the end of his career and only a few months from death -- asked Sultanov to visit and to play for him.

"To meet Vladimir Horowitz and actually play for him . . ." says Sultanov, his widening eyes indicating that he still can't believe it happened. "Let me tell you that it made me the most nervous I have ever been in my life, 1,000 times more nervous than I was before making my Carnegie Hall debut. But it was a wonderful evening -- we played for each other all night long -- and he told me that the critics had been hard on him too. He told me that the first thing for any pianist must be the audience. I agree with that and why is that so bad? Perhaps one can't always serve art and please the audience too, but it doesn't hurt to try."

Sultanov was born in Tashkent, the capital of the Soviet republic of Uzbeckistan, the son of an Uzbec father and a Russian mother. At an early age he showed prodigious gifts for both the piano and Tae Kwon Do.

"A martial art really isn't about breaking things with your hands and feet so much as it is about meditation," says the young pianist with a smile. "It's rather like yoga. You have to separate the physical body from the emotional and spiritual body and get down to the real you -- the little piece of absolute fire that comes from God."

But it was his pianistic gifts that made the Soviet government move the 12-year-old Sultanov and his family to Moscow so that he might study with the great Lev Naumov, the teacher of Cliburn Prize-winner Vladimir Viardo, and Andrei Gavrilov, the winner of the 1974 Tchaikovsky. In fact Sultanov might have won the 1986 Tchaikovsky when he was only 16 had not a piano lid fallen on him and broken his right hand after the first round.

Sultanov and his wife, Dotsa, a cellist -- his childhood sweetheart from their days at Moscow's Central School for Gifted Children -- now make their home in Fort Worth, returning to Moscow only when his schedule permits.

"I like Texas so much -- it's so big and its people are so generous that it reminds me of Russia," Sultanov says. "There are wonderful things about Russia -- such wonderful support of the arts and such wonderful artists and art. You can have Rachmaninov and Babel for breakfast, Turgenev and Mussorgsky for lunch and Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy for dinner. The problem is that there isn't any food to put on the table."

Tonight's concert begins at 8 in the University of Maryland's Memorial Chapel. Tickets are $10. Call (301) 405-7494.

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