Her real name is a casting director's nightmare: Regina Shamlikashvili. When she played in Vienna soon after emigrating from the Soviet Union in 1983, the leading critic was full of praise for her pianism, "but warned that I wouldn't go far with such a long name.
"So he gave me a simpler one: Shamvili. I've been using it ever since."
Regina Shamvili wasn't the first artist from Georgia (the Soviet republic, not U.S. state) to take a stage name. Remember the late Georgi Balanchivadze, better known as George Balanchine?
Like Balanchine, Shamvili eventually gravitated to New York, where she now lives. "New York is Babylon," she said in Russian.
"It has a lot in common with Moscow--they're two sides of the same coin."
Saturday evening, however, will find Shamvili in Los Angeles, making her local debut in Murphy Hall at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester. On the program are works by Beethoven (the Sonata in A, Opus 101), Schumann ("Kreisleriana") and Chopin.
"I'm looking forward to the concert. I like American audiences and the direct way they respond," she said.
Up to now, her few performances in this country have occurred for the most part in obscure places and have attracted little attention. Her New York debut in Merkin Hall in 1984 passed almost unnoticed.
That Shamvili came to the West quietly and legally--not with the sort of spectacular defection splash that newscasters adore--is surely one reason she has yet to become a household name. Nor is she a publicity hound.
"I'm not a gangster," she said. "Everyone tells me I should be more aggressive about promoting myself, but I guess I'm just not that sort of person.
"For me, it has been most important to be able to play, and not so important where. Nobody owes me anything. We had a musical mafia of our own back in Moscow, and I was right in the middle of it, so I understand how things work in New York.
"After all, what would happen if an American pianist suddenly moved to Moscow and wanted to be famous overnight?"
Born in 1945 into a distinguished family in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, Shamvili first studied piano at the Central Musical School and the conservatory there. Later she moved to Moscow for advanced work in the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.
Moscow remained Shamvili's home for nearly 30 years--until November, 1983, when she emigrated (via Italy to the United States) with her husband of 20 years. Boris Katsenbogen, a computer engineer, is a Jew, and was allowed to leave on religious grounds. Shamvili shared a bittersweet anecdote as he laughed in the background.
"What is a Jewish husband? A means of transportation."
By the time she emigrated, Shamvili, a statuesque beauty with dark hair and enormous soulful eyes, had built a thriving career. She was playing about 80 concerts a year "from Kiev to Kamchatka," and had made several successful recordings for Melodiya. Her "rediscovery" of the piano music of Russian composer Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) had gained the attention of foreign diplomats in Moscow and of high-ranking Soviet officials.
Among her admirers, she claims, were former Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and Communist Party chief Leonid Brezhnev. "Lyolik (her affectionate nickname for Brezhnev) was a kind, sweet man," she says.
Despite all this, and many invitations, she was repeatedly denied permission to travel or perform abroad. On several occasions, she prepared for promised trips to Europe only to have them canceled at the last minute. Frustration with that state of affairs finally led her to choose emigration.
Even today, Shamvili says she isn't sure why she wasn't allowed to tour abroad while many other Soviet performers were. "Maybe it was my many friendships with Western diplomats in Moscow. Or even my association with Kosygin and Brezhnev."
Then, too many different bureaucratic agencies thrive in the Soviet musical establishment. Performers are often the victims of their political and territorial feuds. And since Shamvili has no children, perhaps the authorities feared she might not come back.
Since Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost swept into the Kremlin a few years ago, of course, the situation has changed significantly for all Soviet artists, including musicians. Many composers and performers who had never been allowed to travel abroad before are now making the rounds of American and European capitals.
Not long ago, Shamvili even received a phone call from a Soviet official at the United Nations who asked her to consider returning to the Soviet Union "either permanently or for a visit. And he was repentant about official behavior toward me in the past. They've been calling a lot of Soviet emigre artists and asking us to think about coming back.
"For me, though, it's too soon to think of returning, even for a visit. It's all still too painful, too fresh in my mind.
"I love Russia, and I always will. But my home is here in New York. And the time has come for me to start playing more often in America."