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Sofia Cosma dies at 96; concert pianist and prison camp survivor

Sofia Cosma spent seven years in Soviet prison camps. She was able to revive her fledgling career and become a permanent soloist with the Romanian Philharmonic. She later settled in Southern California, where she performed and taught.

February 22, 2011|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
  • Pianist Sofia Cosma defected to the United States in 1981. She lived with her daughter in Camarillo, where she developed a devoted group of students and was featured in guest appearances with the Ventura County Symphony.
Pianist Sofia Cosma defected to the United States in 1981. She lived with… (Bob Carey, Los Angeles Times )

Sofia Cosma, a concert pianist who defied long odds to rebuild her career after seven years in Soviet prison camps and later established herself as a performer and teacher in Southern California, died of natural causes Feb. 12 at a nursing home in Oxnard, said her daughter, Ilona Scott. Cosma was 96.

Cosma's musical aspirations were dashed in 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Cosma, who was Jewish, was attempting to rejoin her family in Latvia when she was arrested and incarcerated in a Siberian prison. She feared she would never concertize again.

But she eventually found a way back to the piano and during the 1960s and '70s earned acclaim as a soloist with the Romanian Philharmonic. In 1981, she defected to the United States and made her Los Angeles concert debut.

"Her pianistic recovery has been complete," a Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote in 1981. "She plays with massive authority and the most desirable kind of individuality."

Cosma was born in Latvia on Nov. 1, 1914. She began to study piano as a girl and, at 18, certain that she wanted a career in music, moved to Vienna to advance her training and became an Austrian citizen. In 1933, she competed in the International Concours de Piano in Vienna and finished in the top four, along with Dinu Lipatti, the Romanian pianist and composer.

But when Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Cosma fled to Latvia. Her Austrian citizenship marked her as a traitor to the Soviet Union after the German invasion and brought her swift arrest and deportation to Siberia.

From 1941 to 1948, she performed hard labor, digging potatoes out of frozen ground and making camouflage nets for Soviet tanks. After several years in Siberia, she was sent to a prison camp in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union, where she met her husband and their daughter was born.

After her release, Soviet authorities sent her back to Austria with her daughter; her husband was ordered back to his native Romania. In 1950, they were reunited in Bucharest, and a son, Mihail, was born a short time later. Although daily life was a battle against starvation, Cosma began to teach piano, bartering lessons for practice time. She finally obtained her own piano when a family fleeing the country sold theirs to her for a watch, a coat and Austrian chocolate bars.

About 1958, friends persuaded Cosma to audition for an opening with the Romanian Philharmonic. She became a permanent soloist and over the next two decades performed on radio and television and in concert halls throughout Eastern Europe. "So I began to get a better life," she told The Times in 1990, "but I had no freedom" under Romania's communist dictatorship.

After her husband's death in 1974, she made several trips to the U.S. and defected in 1981. She lived with her daughter in Camarillo, where she developed a devoted group of students and was featured in guest appearances with the Ventura County Symphony.

She recorded on the TownHall label, earning high marks from New York Times critic Bernard Holland for a 1982 release of Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin. "TownHall's recording is not very radiant," Holland wrote, "but Miss Cosma's honesty of expression and the absence on her part of extraneous or self-serving gestures constitute adequate compensation."

In 1990, she returned to the Soviet Union to perform at Moscow's Tchaikovsky Hall.

In addition to her son and daughter, she is survived by two grandchildren, all of Camarillo.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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