National News

Wanda Wilkomirska, Famed Polish Violinist, Dies at 89

Posted May 5, 2018 12:28 a.m. EDT

Wanda Wilkomirska, an acclaimed violinist who was an integral part of tumultuous times in her native Poland, died on Tuesday in Warsaw. She was 89.

Poland’s Ministry of Culture posted the news of her death on its website.

Wilkomirska performed all over the world during a long and busy career in which she gave as many as 164 concerts a year. She was also a noted teacher, in Germany and Australia as well as Poland.

But in addition to her mastery of the violin — she played an instrument made in Venice in 1734 by the renowned Guarneri family — she was known for the stand she took in support of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement as it emerged in the 1970s, even while she was married to a top official of Poland’s Communist Party.

After martial law was declared in Poland in late 1981, she announced while on a concert tour of the West that she would not return to the country. She stayed away for almost a decade.

Wilkomirska was born on Jan. 11, 1929, in Warsaw into a musical family, and first learned the violin from her father.

“As soon as I could read I could also read music,” she said in a four-part 1980 interview for the radio program “For the Love of Music” on WNCN-FM in New York.

She graduated from the Lodz Academy of Music in 1947 and the Ferenc Liszt Music Academy in Budapest, Hungary, three years later.

She said that one highlight of her career came in 1952, during the prestigious Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Warsaw, when she first played Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Concerto No. 1. Though she didn’t win the competition — she finished in a tie for second place — the piece became one of her signatures, and she performed and recorded Szymanowski’s works throughout her life.

Another high point, she said, was playing in 1955 at the first concert in the newly rebuilt Warsaw Philharmonic concert hall, the original building having been destroyed during World War II.

In the early 1960s American impresario Sol Hurok brought her to the United States and Canada, and she made an immediate impression. In January 1961 she played at Carnegie Hall with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Such easy, unforced and ultra-efficient playing is not everybody’s birthright,” Harold C. Schonberg, reviewing that concert, wrote in The New York Times. “Add to that fine musicianship and an engaging stage presence, and the result is an unusually gifted instrumentalist.”

He added presciently, “She is 31 years old and has a brilliant future.”

Wilkomirska played under some of the top conductors of the era, but once she had garnered some accolades and experience she was rarely intimidated by them. In an interview with musicologist Sigrid Harris in 2007, she recalled a television concert she played with Leonard Bernstein in which she thought he took the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto too fast.

“Of course, I managed to play it,” she said, “but I wandered through this big hall to Maestro Bernstein. I said: ‘Excuse me, isn’t it too fast? Because it is a kopak, it is a Russian dance.’ He looked at me and said: ‘What do you mean, too fast? Is it too fast for you?’ I said: ‘No, no, no, Maestro! It is too fast for Tchaikovsky!”

“I tell you one thing,” she added, “it was the last time I ever played with Bernstein.”

That same independent streak emerged as Poland’s political upheavals began. She was, in effect, one of the country’s leading exports during much of its time in the Soviet bloc, someone communist leaders were happy to send abroad because she reflected well on the country. But when the Solidarity movement began in the 1970s she supported liberalization.

In 1976 she was among scores of artists and intellectuals who opposed restrictive constitutional amendments, which was particularly noteworthy because she was married at the time to Mieczyslaw Rakowski, a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and editor of its weekly newspaper (and later, prime minister). They divorced in 1977, but she was widely credited with introducing Rakowski to artistic circles and helping to soften his views.

In 1981 the government, in a final effort to stifle Solidarity, declared martial law, and Wilkomirska, on tour, chose to stay in the West, living and teaching in West Germany and Australia. In 1990, after change came to Poland, she returned to play a violin concerto written by Andrzej Panufnik, who had himself emigrated from Poland early in the communist era.

“It was something incredible,” she said of that return. “It was not a typical concert.”

Wilkomirska continued to perform late in life. In 1996, well into her 60s, she played for Pope John Paul II in Vatican City.

She also made widely admired recordings throughout her career and introduced a number of new works by composers from the countries where she lived for extended periods, Poland, Germany and Australia.

Information on her survivors was not immediately available.

In the 1980 radio interview, Wilkomirska talked about why she maintained a grueling concert schedule even after she became famous and might have cut back to just large halls.

“I have the big cities,” she said. “I have all those Londons and New Yorks, Berlins and Moscows. But I can’t forget the little cities where I played when I was young and unknown. So I have both histories, and I play so many. I can’t refuse a small city, because the people have ears there.”