Pianist's prowess, Part II Profile: The American career of 55-year-old Yugoslav musician Dubravka Tomsic has been a long time coming, but audiences now wait with bated breath.

July 25, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN STAFF

How many middle-aged, essentially unknown female pianists -- with hard-to-pronounce names from unfamiliar places -- can you name who become bona-fide stars in the world of classical music?

You can start with Dubravka Tomsic, from the small city of Ljubljana in the northwestern corner of what used to be Yugoslavia and is now Slovenia.

"Please be sure not to identify me as a Yugoslav, but as Slovenian," Tomsic says in near-perfect English, lightly inflected with the New York accent that is the product of having spent her teen-age years in Manhattan.

Tomsic, 55, may not be as familiar to most music lovers as some of the other pianists invited to give a recital in this week's International William Kapell Piano Competition and Piano Festival at the University of Maryland College Park. But her recital tonight in Tawes Theatre has been the festival's most eagerly awaited event. Ever since a piano recital at the Newport [R.I.] Music Festival in 1989 -- 30 years after she left the United States -- Tomsic's career has snowballed to enormous proportions.

In a review of that Newport concert, Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer opened by saying that "After 5,000 concerts I know better than to say anything is the best" -- then went on to write that Tomsic's Debussy and Scarlatti were nevertheless "the best" he had ever heard.

Within a few years, Tomsic acquired other Boston-area champions, including Seiji Ozawa, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who accompanied her in Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto in Boston and later re-introduced her to New York with two rapturously received performances of the same piece in Carnegie Hall.

She has become a familiar figure on the major recital series in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities -- where she is regularly compared, favorably, to such keyboard giants as Maurizio Pollini and Artur Schnabel.

Her recordings may still be found mostly in the bargain bins that stock such obscure labels as Pentagon, Grand Gala, Critic's Choice and Stradivari. But her celebrity among collectors has reached such a pitch that she's received a great, if unintended, compliment.

"They're putting out recordings with my name on them that I didn't make," Tomsic says, sounding as if this is one form of flattery she'd rather do without.

Divine performances

To judge from the recordings she has made, Tomsic is an incredible pianist. She possesses a technique that enables her to play the prestissimo coda of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, with alternating staccato octaves in one hand and with fingered scales in octaves in the other, at a tempo that defies belief. She plays the difficult-to-put-across Schumann Concerto with muscular directness, achieving the maximum of poetry without a trace of affectation, in an interpretation that can be ranked alongside classic accounts by Dinu Lipatti and Guiomar Novaes.

"There are no mannerisms with Dubravka," says Mark Malkovich, executive director of the Newport Music Festival, who resurrected Tomsic's American career by inviting her to open the festival in 1989 and 1990. "She just gets down to business and plays like God."

How could such a pianist be ignored for so long? The truth is that she wasn't.

Tomsic was a remarkable child prodigy who first performed in public at the age of 5. In 1952, the Yugoslav government provided a subsidy that enabled Tomsic, then 12, to study at the Juilliard School when her father, a distinguished jurist and law professor, went to New York on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. When her father returned to Yugoslavia a year later, Tomsic and her mother remained. By 1959, when she and her mother returned home, the teen-ager was on the brink of a major career.

She still has the glowing reviews for her debuts in Chicago and New York in 1954. A debut with the New York Philharmonic in the Grieg Concerto was just as warmly received in 1955, and there was an ecstatic response to her Carnegie Hall recital debut in 1957 by, among others, the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

"I remember . . . the 'Mephisto Waltz' by Liszt at a tremendous tempo that brought the house down," Rubinstein recalled more than 20 years later in his memoirs. Rubinstein went on to write that Tomsic had developed into a "perfect and marvelous pianist."

The relationship between Rubinstein and the prodigy dated to 1952. In his memoirs, Rubinstein recalled that after each of the recitals he gave in Carnegie Hall every year, he was visited by a pretty, little girl in long braids, who, without speaking, shyly presented him with a flower. He was finally introduced to her by a Steinway Piano executive after a 1954 recital.

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