Back with a flourish Music: Pianist Tomsic, a rising star here in the '50s, finds her career rekindled in the States.

October 22, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

For 30 years, Dubravka Tomsic was lost to American audiences.

A one-time prodigy and rising star of the classical piano, she left here in 1959 and went home to what was then Yugoslavia, leaving behind rave reviews and accolades from the legendary Artur Rubinstein.

She never stopped working. She gave thousands of recitals and orchestra performances, played everywhere it seems, except here.

"There were periods of time when I played almost every day with only a few breaks, and I was traveling all over Europe," says Tomsic, who will give a solo recital Sunday evening at Johns Hopkins University. "It was really quite strenuous."

Then the unexpected happened, an invitation for a recital at Rhode Island's Newport Music Festival in 1989. She was such a hit that organizers invited her back the next year. In 1994, performances with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra brought wider acclaim. Recitals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and other cities followed.

Soon critics were comparing her to great artists of the classical piano like Maurizio Pollini, Artur Schnabel and Guiomar Novaes. Her recordings began to appear on small labels tucked in the $2.99 bargain bin at Circuit City, or the reduced price rack at other stores. Eight years after Newport, she has a second American career.

"This I didn't expect," she says of the quirk of fate that finds her, at 57, touring America. "I love the States. It's like my second country."

Her current 2 1/2 -week tour began with a full day of jet planes, transfers and layovers -- Slovenia to Frankfurt to Chicago, to Louisville, Ky., where last week she played Brahms' First Piano Concerto.

She fell in love with the piano as a 4-year-old picking out folk songs her mother sang to her. Though her mother didn't want her to pursue the piano, Tomsic's exceptional talent and desire became apparent to everyone.

"I started to study. I wanted more and more," says Tomsic, who later had to chose between the piano and the violin. "I said definitely it was piano because it was like an orchestra."

That sense of orchestral possibility, of tone and color will be in full display at Shriver Hall, where the program begins with the classical style of Mozart's D minor Fantasia and ends with the extreme emotions contained in Chopin's four ballades. In between there will be Brahms' meditative rhapsodies and selections from Ravel's "Miroirs."

The recital is Tomsic's second in Maryland. Last summer she played at the International William Kapell Piano Competition and Piano Festival in College Park. Her technical mastery allowed her to sail through Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata at a breath-taking pace. But what was most impressive was the mind at work.

For Tomsic, technique is merely a means to an end. She says Rubinstein impressed upon her the need "not just to play brilliant with immaculate technique." The great master wanted poetry. He wanted her to investigate "the character of the piece, the form," she says.

"He would not play for me that I would copy him," she says. "But I would play for him and we would discuss why I was playing this way and not the other way. He wanted me to find out for myself."

They met in New York City where Tomsic's father, a professor of international law, had come on a Rockefeller fellowship.

Tomsic enrolled at Juilliard. It was there she heard Rubinstein's recordings of Chopin.

Rubinstein heard her at a Town Hall recital in 1954 when she was 14. She later played for him, but he waited years before offering to teach her. Still, she became his adoring fan, showing up backstage at Carnegie Hall, bearing the gift of a single flower.

"I went to all of his concerts, even if I stood," says Tomsic. "I wouldn't even have a dinner. I just wanted to hear his playing."

In 1957, with her money running out and her return to Yugoslavia imminent, Rubinstein intervened. Marshall Tito offered to pay for her studies -- if Rubinstein took her on as a student. They worked together for two years, and in that short time the great master prepared her to go on alone.

"He always said: 'I'm not a teacher. I don't like the word teacher,' " she says. "He said he liked to help talent, to bring out the talent and the personality."

Tomsic, who now teaches at the Academy of Music in Ljubljana, echoes those same sentiments when discussing her students. She says she strives to bring out their personalities and build their confidence so they can continue to develop without a teacher's guiding hand.

"You have many young artists, but they just work with teachers without ending," says Tomsic, who is married to the composer Alojs Srebotnjak and has a son. "They just fly like a butterfly from one flower to another."

Her contact with younger players is not limited to teaching. Earlier this year, she helped judge the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a tough assignment for Tomsic, who doesn't particularly like competitions.

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