Her mother tried to keep her away from the piano, but three-year-old Dubravka Tomšič insisted. Soon afterward, having learned how to read notes, she acquired a teacher in her native Slovenia, former Cortot pupil Zora Zarnik, who had never taught children before. “She was a very sensitive, very beautiful pianist,” Dubravka said recently from her home in Ljubljana. “She taught me like I was a grown-up student, and I was four! So I started with some Bach, and it went so quickly that I wanted to play only Bach!… But we went slowly to Mozart, and then slowly to Beethoven and so on.” One day her teacher put on a recording of the world-renowned Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopin, and she was transfixed.
“From that moment, Chopin for me, as a child, was Rubinstein. And that’s how I fell in love with Chopin.” Through a fascinating series of quirks of fate and history, Dubravka ended up at New York’s Juilliard School, all of age 12, where she attended every one of Rubinstein’s concerts, always leaving a rose for her idol, which he didn’t acknowledge. “He didn’t know who I was,” she said with a laugh. Finally, Rubinstein heard her play and she became one of the only students he ever accepted.
On April 10th, Dubravka will present a generous serving of Chopin’s music, as well as Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata and Haydn’s mighty E-flat Sonata, in her seventh recital on the Friends of Chamber Music’s Master Pianists Series. Recently 75, Dubravka has become a national celebrity in her home, a part of the former Yugoslavia that, thanks to political spasms of the late 1980s, became an independent Republic of Slovenia in 1991. “I try not to be so recognized, but people know me, younger and older,” she said with a laugh. “People come up to me on the street and say, ‘You are the pianist!’ And I say, Yes. They say, ‘It’s so nice meeting you in person: You look so much better than on TV!’ ”
Dubravka has traveled a winding and glorious road since her oft-mentioned appearance in front of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito at the age of 5. Having chosen to make her career chiefly in Europe and the “Soviet bloc,” she drew renewed attention among Americans at a 1989 appearance at the Newport Music Festival, after which she quickly became a darling of concert series in New York, Boston, San Francisco and other cities—including, thanks to Cynthia Siebert’s Friends of Chamber Music, Kansas City. “Her sound is so rich and broad and deep that you want for nothing,” Cynthia said.
It was through a peculiar set of circumstances that Dubravka landed in the U.S. as a child, an experience that marked her musical development for life. Her father, a professor of international law, received a Rockefeller Grant to study for a year in London and later in New York, and although his wife and daughter were not officially supposed to accompany him, Mrs. Tomšič insisted on visiting England with her husband, where young Dubravka was heard by the late Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau. He felt this brilliant pianist had gone as far as she could in her native country and needed to seek study in a cultural hub. So the family traveled together to New York, where Dubravka was a student of Kathleen Bacon at Juilliard before Rubinstein took her under his wing.
“Rubinstein’s purpose was to develop my personality,” she said. “He said … your technique is good, so I’m going to work on your tone quality. … He never played for me the piece I was preparing. Maybe later, when he was sure I knew what to do with it, so I wouldn’t imitate him.” Rubinstein would leave on tour and when he returned he expected a whole new batch of repertoire. “I had to study very quickly, because each time he wanted something else.” But there were perks: “His wife, Nela, was always feeding me, because we didn’t have money. … But she would do it so graciously. If I was there in the morning she would say, Oh stay for lunch before going home. And if I was there in the afternoon she’d say, oh stay for supper. I’ll let your mother know you are with us.”
Alas, Dubravka’s halcyon New York years were about to end, as her visa was about to run out and she had to leave the U.S. So she had a choice: Go to Paris where she could continue her studies and her career in the center of European culture, or return home and—as he mother wished—“settle down.” She missed her family, and her country, and though she never regretted taking the second road, Rubinstein was disappointed at the time. “He said, Well, you’re going to do it the hard way.” And hard it was, though Dubravka said if she hadn’t returned to Ljubljana she would never have met her husband, the brilliant composer Alojz Srebotnjak (who died in 2010), and they would never have had their wonderful son, Martin, now a prominent Slovenian film director.
Cynthia Siebert has known Dubravka since before Socialist travel restrictions were eased, chiefly through her dozens of recordings of music from a wide range. “She’s one of the greatest pianists in the world, period,” said the Friends Founding Artistic Director, brushing aside the designation of “woman pianist” but pointing out that, yes, Dubravka has had not only gender politics to negotiate but “real” politics as well. “It’s the age-old story: Anyone who has been in that situation knows that your body may be subjugated but your soul, especially for an artist, cannot be.”
Dubravka said that although finding management used to be difficult for women, she’s rarely faced gender-related obstacles otherwise. “I’ve played with all the major orchestras and I never had a problem because of being a woman. When they heard me, I was always invited back.” But Cynthia said there are other, not solely musical, reasons why she and other presenters keep bringing Dubravka back again and again. “She’s one of the most loving, generous spirits I’ve ever met.”
If the politics of Eastern Europe kept Dubravka from traveling widely before 1991, she has made up for lost time. She has played with all the major orchestras and in all major cities of the world. Some 4,500 concerts later (yes, you read that right), she’s still going strong, in addition to maintaining her teaching post at the Academy of Music at University of Ljubljana. Her goal in concertizing remains the same: “We don’t play for the critics, we play for people, so that we can bring something beautiful to them. So for that evening they can feel this music… and for two hours they forget about all their problems.”