Not long ago a famous American classical pianist gave an interview to a Japanese newspaper in which he complained, “I can’t tell if a Japanese audience is enjoying the performance or if they’re bored.”

Pianist Alexei Sultanov doesn’t have this problem.

“I think about the audience every second while I’m playing. I sense them automatically. I’ll change my interpretation of a piece depending on the audience.”

We are sitting in his room at the Miyako Hotel in Tokyo. Sultanov, dressed in a white T-shirt and baggy black trousers, is battling jet lag. He and his wife (and personal manager), Dace, flew in the day before from Fort Worth, Texas, where they share a house with five cats and an iguana.

When he’s told that he gained a number of young female fans a year and a half ago after his name and picture were used in the trendy drama “Long Vacation” (in one episode, the hero, a pianist played by heartthrob Takuya Kimura, goes to a Sultanov concert), he smiles sleepily and says, half facetiously, “That’s great. Then I can play anything I want. Musicians have to present what they’re famous for.”

He himself is famous for having won the Eighth Van Cliburn Piano Competition in 1989 when he was 19, and for placing second at the Thirteenth Chopin Concours in Warsaw in 1995, a year that saw no first prize. In Japan, he’s also famous for a more dubious achievement. During one of his Tokyo concerts in 1996, he actually broke a piano string, a point that was stressed in every review of the concert and which is credited by some with the notably larger ticket sales of his 1997 tour. The incident branded Sultanov as a dynamo and a dazzler, and he is definitely an exciting, passionate player; but his passion is not the transporting kind. Sultanov doesn’t fall into dreamy reveries when he plays. He’s rooted, focused, intense.

Rightly considered a crowd-pleaser, Sultanov stirs up critical controversy whenever he plays. He rejects the school of cerebral pianists who try to second guess composers by analyzing every note. “The music always speaks for itself,” he says. “All you can do is play it the way you feel.” To reach that point, however, you must rise to a certain level of competence, and however you interpret Sultanov’s comments about freedom of expression, he is uncompromising in his belief in virtuosity. His conversation is littered with loaded political metaphors like “dictatorship” and “anarchy” to explain his conviction that one needs to master the instrument completely before even thinking about personal expression.

Sultanov was born and raised in Uzbekistan. He studied first at the Tashkent Conservatory and then at the hallowed Moscow Conservatory, where he says he “broke all the rules.” The teachers there shun their pedagogic responsibility, he says. “It’s OK when a student hits a wrong note, because all the teachers care about is how you are supposed to feel. The student looks up to the teacher as someone who is going to save his life. He wants exercises, he wants the teacher to make him play, but all they talk about is the depth of the music and all this…” He dismisses the thought with a wave of his hand. “It’s bullshit. You have to start with one key in front of another.” Consequently, incomplete pianists are being sent out into the world. “When a guy makes mistakes on stage at a piano competition, he shouldn’t get passed on to the next round, but that’s what’s happening,” the pianist says. Sultanov himself did not make it to the second round at last year’s Tchaikovsky Concours in Moscow, but “the tickets for my performance sold out. The only other person who ever sold out as fast was Horowitz.” According to reports, the audience’s response was so overwhelming that the organizers had no choice but to give him a special out-of-competition citation.

In spite of his obvious adoration of Vladimir Horowitz, Sultanov rejects the image of the superhuman Russian concert pianist that some people apply to him, and not because he isn’t Russian himself. “People expect too much. They get uncomfortable when you act like an ordinary human being. If you have special skills, then those should come out in the performance, but they don’t make you a special person.” Sultanov, with his salty jokes and blunt demeanor, is certainly down to earth, but it sometimes gets him into trouble. “I upset people wherever I go,” he admits jokingly, as evidenced by reports from the last Van Cliburn Competition where, as a member of the delegation of past winners, he uttered some comments that, according to one music magazine, made people “uncomfortable.” The pianist says, “I had too much to drink. I said that three pianists are supreme: Van Cliburn, Horowitz and me.” If he stands by the comment now (“Time will tell,” he says slyly), it isn’t because he’s haughty, but because he has nothing to lose by it.

Sultanov can be incoherent, even contradictory, but he’s sincere in everything he does, whether it’s performing a Liszt sonata, making a CD of melodies by the late Japanese rocker Yutaka Ozaki, playing jazz with George Duke and Al Jarreau, or acting, which he hopes to get into in the future. In any event, he doesn’t want to limit himself to the world of classical music, but while he’s part of it, he thinks he can at least shake it up. That’s why he’s going to enter the next Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels. “It’s not about the competition,” he says. “It’s about showing people common sense. You shouldn’t give awards to pianists who can’t play.”

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