A world-renowned female violinist — who performed in the tri-county area six times since 1999 — died last Wednesday of breast cancer. She was only 36-years-old.
Anna Karkowska, who immigrated to the United States from Lodz, Poland in 1997, was living in Astoria, New York. She died at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City.
A famous British composer once called Karkowska the “greatest female violin virtuoso who ever lived.”
“She lived for music,” said Kasha Karkowska, Anna’s sister.
“She loved playing violin, actually she was playing Paganini just two days before she died. She died on Valentine’s Day with a smile on her face, but she left us too early.”
Anna and Kasha regularly performed together as the Karkowska Duo. Kasha is an accomplished pianist who said she is not sure if she will continue to perform publicly after the death of her sister. One key component of the duo’s success was the clever and comical onstage banter the two sisters would engage in between performing songs. Their natural connection was evident.
“I didn’t make any plans. We were just so close,” Kasha said. “The two of us were very lucky. I guess I just took it for granted.”
The duo first appeared in Corbin in 1999 as part of the Fine Arts Association of Southeastern Kentucky Inc. annual Concert Series. They originally weren’t part of the schedule for the group’s 1998-99 season, but Fine Arts Association founder and past president, Betty Hamilton, had taken a special liking to the duo and wanted them to play locally.
Long time Fine Arts Association board member Anne Hoskins stepped in to finance the first concert.
“We didn’t have any extra money. Their fee was not very much, so I said I would sponsor them the first time they came,” Hoskins said. “I wanted to help and it sounded like a worthwhile cause. I’ll have to say, they were very good.”
The Karkowska sisters ended up having a special connection with Corbin. They’d play five more times for the Fine Arts Association. Hoskins, Hamilton and others were integral in helping both sisters navigate the complex legal process of obtaining American citizenship.
Kasha said she and her sister first came to the U.S. in the 1990s so that Anna could play in an International violin competition at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. Their parents sold their cars in order to finance the trip. Ironically, the Karkowskas weren’t really a family steeped in musical tradition. Their father was an engineer. Their mother, an ophthalmologist. But there was little they wouldn’t do to help their daughters succeed.
“They always said they would support us in everything we wanted to do,” Kasha said. “We literally came to the United States with one suitcase and a dream. I think like many immigrants, our story is one where we were just coming here hoping for the best.”
Anna won the competition. The duo thought they would simply take the prize money back to Poland. But as it turns out, it was instead a full scholarship to College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“We called our parents so excited and my mom was like, ‘Oh my God! You don’t even have any winter clothes,’” she said. “We just came for the competition. We didn’t know what we were going to do after that.”
Anna Karkowska later attended the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City.
She went on to win many more competitions and prizes, and started a successful career performing in venues around the world, including the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
Anna and Kasha performed together for a special celebration of Pope John Paul II’s 80th birthday, the International Mozart Festival, UNICEF Charity Gala and a special concert for The Governor of Kentucky during the Henry Clay Awards Ceremony. Anna also performed and recorded music with many well-known orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra.
“I was hoping to have them back again soon to perform in our area,” said Betty Comer, Program Chair for the Fine Arts Association. “This is just terrible news. She was so young and so talented. I think everyone in our association was shocked and saddened to hear the news of Anna’s death.”
Kasha said Corbin held a special place in her sister’s heart. Anna would always provide special programs for local schools when the two performed in the area. She even recalled, after one concert, her sister giving an impromptu violin lesson to a young girl who, later, would continue to write Anna about her ongoing maturation and success learning the instrument.
“She had a gift from above and she worked very, very hard to perform the way she did,” Kasha Karkowska said.
“We met so many wonderful people in Kentucky through our music. Music does change lives. Anna met beautiful friends through her music.”