Pianist Rubinstein’s interest pivotal in Tomsic’s growth

Few musicians can credit their idol with setting them on the path to greatness. Dubravka Tomsic is o
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SCHENECTADY — Slovenian pianist Dubravka Tomsic has enjoyed an international career for several decades. She’s performing Wednesday at Union College’s Memorial Chapel in her fifth appearance in the International Festival of Chamber Music series. But few can credit their idol with setting them on the path to greatness. Tomsic is one of those few.

When she was 10 and had been playing piano for five years, her mother gave her a recording of Chopin’s music to listen to. The pianist was Artur Rubinstein.

“I liked Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. But after listening, I asked my mother who the pianist was. After that, I remembered,” Tomsic said from her home in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Rubinstein became her idol, she said.

Two years later on the recommendation of pianist Claudio Arrau, Tomsic, accompanied by her mother, came to Juilliard’s pre-college division to study. Although she had government grants to support her studies, the two had little money, she said, but they managed to get to all of Rubinstein’s New York City concerts. And after every one, she’d go backstage after the concert and give him a red rose.

Dubravka Tomsic

WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday

HOW MUCH: $20; $10

MORE INFO: 518 388-6080

When she was 14, Steinway gave her a piano to practice on so she could make her Town Hall debut. Shortly after, Tomsic and her mother tried to get backstage to see Rubinstein after one of his concerts but there were too many people. Luckily, the Steinway manager recognized her and got her backstage. Even better, Rubinstein remembered her as the girl who brought him a rose.

Rubinstein’s wife asked her what she did and when Tomsic told her that she was a pianist, Rubenstein said, “And she’s even a pianist.”

He was so amazed that Steinway had given her a piano to practice on at her age without having to pay for it, he told her he wanted to hear her play, she said. The next day, she went to his apartment and played for more than two hours.

They stayed in touch and one March over lunch at his apartment, Rubinstein told Tomsic he’d like to work with her. She broke down in tears.

“I cried for happiness because I knew he never took pupils,” she said. “But I had no money to pay him.”

Rubinstein personally went to the ambassador of Yugoslavia (the Republic of Slovenia became independent in 1991) in Washington, D.C., to plead her case. In his autobiography, “My Many Years” (1980 Knopf), Rubinstein noted the ambassador was fortunately a cultured man who understood Tomsic’s plight. When Yugoslavian President Tito was notified, he approved a stipend for Tomsic as long as Rubinstein would teach her. Rubinstein also found her a scholarship from the Emergency Fund for Musicians. The last person to be helped by that fund was Bela Bartok, Tomsic said.

Bringing out personality

For the next two years, Tomsic played for Rubinstein as often as every day as long as she had a piece to bring.

“I learned a lot of repertoire and about tone quality, nuance, dynamics and interpretation — how to bring out my personality. It was hard,” Tomsic said. “Mrs. Rubinstein fed me. She was so gracious. She treated me like a daughter.”

At 17, Tomsic graduated from high school and the Juilliard School and gave her Carnegie Hall debut. Rubinstein brought his whole family to hear her. Money matters and family issues forced her to return to Yugoslavia, where Tito invited her to his summer residence when she got home. But she wasn’t sure how she would develop a career. Once again, Rubinstein stepped in and suggested she contact his management in Holland, who started her off on concert tours throughout Europe, the then-Soviet Union and Australia.

“His intent was to put me on my own feet so I could work alone so I didn’t have to go from one teacher to another,” she said. “I’m so grateful to him. It was like a fairy tale.”

Tomsic has developed a cult following overseas, which is something she laughs about. But North American audiences don’t know her as well, partly because she never got good management here. After a hiatus of almost 30 years, Tomsic played at the 1989 gala at the revered Newport Music Festival and followed that with a national recital tour.

Since then, she has played with many of the major U.S. orchestras, recorded more than 80 discs, and annually gives a short national U.S. recital tour, which this season includes seven cities from Boston to San Francisco and a debut with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra.

What she’ll play

Her program on Wednesday is of pieces she hasn’t done in a long time. These include Mozart’s Adagio, four D. Scarlatti sonatas, Prokofiev’s Sonata #3, a few Brahms’ Intermezzo, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 57 (“Appassionata”) and “Macedonian Dances” by her husband, Alojz Srebotnjak.

“This is an early piece he wrote for me, but it’s very modern writing,” she said. “I wanted something less contemporary but the piece is well written and very good.”

Tomsic said she doesn’t practice the six hours daily that she used to, and she’s not on the road performing the 100 concerts a year — she used to have 40 concerti under her fingers. Instead, her eight students at the Academy of Music at the Ljubljana University, the occasional orchestral gig (she’d just returned from playing in London), local recitals at home and being a juror at international piano competitions keep her busy. To date, she’s performed more than 4,000 concerts.

“I never had physical problems,” Tomsic said. “So the three to four hours of practice now is nothing special.”

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