Marina Lomazov

By Cynthia Boiter

Tall and elegant, her poise and demeanor reflecting the discipline of the Soviet culture into which she was born, Marina Lomazov takes the stage with all the finesse of the piano diva she is widely recognized to be. Described by reviewers as “a mesmerizing risk-taker” and “one of the most passionate and charismatic performers on the international concert scene today,” there are many other places on the planet that an artist of her pedigree and renown could call home. But for reasons she seems to understand better than anyone, it is Columbia, South Carolina where she works and plays, teaches and lives. And Columbia is all the better for it.

Born in Kiev, the daughter of professional engineers, Lomazov knew as a child that she would live her life as an artist – though her first love, ballet, didn’t work out. “I started in ballet when I was small,” she recalls, “but it wasn’t meant for me. I so wanted to wear a tutu, but I was totally unsuited.” It’s hard to imagine the woman Lomazov is today being anything other than graceful, though she recalls that as a child, “I had no graces. I was completely awkward.” When ballet proved unsuccessful her mother suggested she try music. “As soon as I started,” she says, “it took off.” Lomazov says that while she would not consider herself a musical prodigy that, as a child, she did “stand out” from the rest of her contemporaries. (That said, Lomazov was the youngest person ever to receive a First Prize for her performance in the All-Kiev Piano Competition.) “I loved performing,” she says. “I felt completely at home on the stage and I loved to practice.”

But not everyone was enthusiastic about her career choice. “I was told there was no money in music; that I should pursue something else,” she remembers. “But every time I thought of doing something else, I’d feel nauseous.” Luckily, her parents had faith in her abilities and arrived at the difficult decision to leave Russia and move their 19-year-old daughter to America just before the fall of the Soviet Union. “I didn’t have much of a future in Kiev,” she recalls. “We went through a long immigration process that was very humiliating. When you leave Russia they take your passport away and strip you of everything. Then you travel through stops with different agencies, the final stop being what is called a ‘Roman holiday’ in Rome where we waited on our visas for three months.”

When the family arrived in Manhattan – Lomazov’s brother, who is an engineer “with the soul of a poet,” Lomazov says, stayed behind in Moscow – they had little money, spoke little English, and applications to attend conservatories to study music were closed for the year. Undaunted, Lomazov went to both Julliard and Manhattan School of Music and begged her case. When asked to pay the $150 application fee, she told them frankly that she didn’t have it. Rather than turn her away, she was given an audition at both schools. Julliard awarded her a full scholarship; Manhattan, a partial. Lomazov took out a small loan and attended Manhattan. At the end of her first semester, Lomazov’s parents moved to Rochester, NY where her father ultimately rose from his Manhattan doorman job to being president of a metallurgy plant in seven years. Lomazov followed her parents to Rochester, planning to attend “some other school of music there,” without realizing that “some other school” was Eastman School of Music, one of the best – if not the best – schools of advanced learning in music in the world.

“I loved Eastman,” Lomazov says. “When I graduated I asked my professor whether I could make a career in music. Luckily for me, he lied and said ‘yes!’ No one knows for sure that they can make it in music. It’s luck, hard work, circumstances, some talent – but mostly hard work,” says Lomazov, who returned to Julliard for her master’s degree, then came back to Eastman in 2000 for her Doctor of Musical Arts, or DMA.

It was also at Eastman where Lomazov met her future husband and music performance partner, Joseph Rackers, whom, along with Natalya Antonova from Eastman and Leonid Fundiler who first taught her piano in Ukraine, she also lists as a mentor. “You really are a combination of everyone who comes into your life,” she says. “My parents, my husband, almost any musician. I learn something every day through discourse.” Lomazov and Rackers married in 2005.

After leaving Eastman, Lomazov taught for two years at Oklahoma State University before coming to the University of South Carolina where, in 2012, she was awarded the Ira McKissick Koger Endowed Chair for the Fine Arts. Her career has been peppered with accolades and awards. Among her many accomplishments, including being awarded prizes in the Cleveland International Piano Competition, William Kapell International Piano Competition, Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, and the Hilton Head International Piano Competition, Lomazov has performed throughout North and South America, China, England, France, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, Japan, and the US. She has performed with, to name only a few, the Boston Pops Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic, South Carolina Philharmonic, Charleston Symphony, Missouri Chamber Orchestra, Ohio Chamber Orchestra, Graz Höchschulorchester in Austria, the Bollington Festival Orchestra in England, and the Chernigoff Symphony Orchestra in Ukraine. She has recorded albums on Albany Records, Arizona University Recordings, Centaur Records, and Innova Recordings. But while the list of her accomplishments is exhaustive, to Lomazov, her greatest achievement has been the founding and direction of the Southeastern Piano Festival at the University of South Carolina, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year with a Tenth Anniversary Piano Extravaganza.

In 2002, Lomazov was given the challenge by her dean to create a piano festival on the campus of USC. She enlisted the help of Rackers as they designed an event that would include “everything we loved about all the festivals we had visited” combined into one celebration. They put the first festival together in 2003 in just eight months’ time. Lomazov admits it was nerve-wracking. “I was 32 and I realized suddenly that I was responsible for 20 underage kids for an entire week, and I wanted to crawl in a hole.” But to her delight, the festival proved to be a roaring success and she loved the sense of connection she found with the young attendees. Almost every student returned the following year.

Every year, the Southeastern Piano Festival offers advanced training for 20 of the best pre-college pianists, ages 13 to 18, in the country, exposing them to new and world-renowned concert pianists and educators, daily lessons with the USC piano faculty, master classes with guest artists, up to five hours of practice per day, daily concerts by award winning artists, and a competition opportunity that results in a cash award and the possibility of performing with the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra.

But for this year’s tenth anniversary celebration, there is more. The festival will open on June 10th with a Piano Extravaganza Concert. Lomazov and Rackers will join USC faculty member Charles Fugo, guest artist Phillip Bush, the Arthur Frazer International Competition Winners, and five grand pianos on the stage of the Koger Center in Columbia, alongside musical director Morihiko Nakahara and the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra. In Lomazov’s words, it will be a “once-in-a-lifetime” event.

The festival is privately supported but Lomazov points out that the university is “kind to us.” Her delight with the kindness of not only the university, but Columbia in general is contagious. “This is an amazing place to be,” she says, citing the community’s supportiveness, openness to change, and how it embraces people who want to make a difference in the city. “Classical music is going through a revitalization here in Columbia. I love bringing people together and seeing stuff happen. I love my work. I love that I can perform, and I love the festival,” she beams.

Though Lomazov has had many offers to teach at many other fine institutions, she remains here in Columbia and has no interest in leaving. “Columbia is an amazing place for an artist to live and work,” she says then pauses. “I almost don’t want you to write that. Maybe we should keep it a secret.”

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