August 15, 2014

Lili Kraus: Inspiring Pianist and Teacher

Tomoko has inspired hundreds of students over the years. She too has been inspired by musicians as well, right from her youth.

The first pianist and teacher whom Tomoko usually mentions is Lili Kraus. When Tomoko collected LPs as a youngster, she listened to Lili Kraus’s performances. Tomoko crossed paths with Lili several times. 

Lili was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1903. She began her piano studies at six years old, and later specialized in Mozart and Beethoven. Lili was already a professional performer and professor at the Vienna Academy, when she met and married Austrian philosopher Otto Mandl. The couple converted to Catholicism, and lived in Italy and London under the threat of Nazism. 

While Lili and her family were on tour in the Dutch West Indies in 1942, they were captured by the Japanese. The family was torn apart, and each member was sent to a different prisoner-of-war camp. Lili survived three years of prison life, largely because the Japanese knew and respected her performance recordings. The story goes that a Japanese university organ major gave her food and musical scores. Finally the British military freed her, and for two year Lili gave performances in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (where she was granted citizenship because of her war-relief efforts). In 1948 Lili moved to England, and later resided in the U.S., where she performed and taught master classes. Lili also helped create the Van Cliburn Piano Competition at Texas Christian University, where she was an artist in residence.

Tomoko met Lili and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1962, when both of them were practicing piano. Listening to Tomoko play, Lili said to her, “I have to learn from you about the piano. I am nothing.” On her part, Tomoko enjoyed Lili’s singing as well as her playing. The two ladies began a warm friendship, which lasted until Lili’s death in 1985.

Lili was known as a charming, talkative and intense personality; “She was ageless,” according to Tomoko. Lili was also a demanding teacher, and could back up her opinions with her own performance quality. “She had a wonderful touch,” remarked Tomoko.

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