Croatian native calls Houston home

From Carnegie Hall to the Boom Boom Room: Loreta Kovacic's wandering musical journey

From Carnegie Hall to the Boom Boom Room: Loreta Kovacic's wandering musical journey

News_David Theis_Loreta
Loreta Kovacic

Just the other day, the earnest bohemians sipping their coffees and tapping at their laptops over at Antidote Coffee got a musical treat. A woman among them who was not so earnest — her flamboyant eyewear gives her away —- pulled a toy-like musical instrument out of her bag and began to play. The instrument, a melody horn, consists of a “laptop” keyboard maybe two feet long, and a plastic tube that the player blows into as she tickles the ivories, producing an accordion-like effect.

The effect was both very cool and very random. But when the performer, Heights resident, Shepherd School of Music PhD, and unique presence in the Houston music scene Loreta Kovacic, asked if I knew the tune, I had to say, "no."

“It’s the Internationale,” she smiled behind her tinted glasses. “It was bigger than the national anthem back home.”

She paused a beat then smiled again. “Just call me Comrade Loreta.”

“Back home” was Zagreb, Croatia (in the former Yugoslavia). Kovacic grew up in the years before the Balkans wars. She was a “good Catholic girl” in heavily Catholic Croatia. In fact, it was her priest uncle who first taught her to play the organ when she spent summers with him at his parish on a lavender-covered Dalmatian island. “He’d pump and I’d play, and vice versa,” she says.

From there she studied piano in the government music schools, which were “very structured. They developed skill but didn’t inspire creativity.” For inspiration Kovacic turned to an 81-year-old woman composer. “If you want to be creative, just write your own music,” Kovacic remembers her saying. “I was shocked, to tell you the truth, to hear an old woman say that.”

In high school she helped form a rock band that had a national following. She played the Polymoog Synthesizer. “I was the first female rock electronic keyboard player in the ex-Yugoslavia,” Kovacic says.

She wasn’t completely surprised when war began in the early ‘90s. “My dad had told me to get out. He said that something bad was coming.”

By 1986 she had come to the U.S. to study piano. Her Ph D studies brought her to Rice. She married and had two kids, and now she hopes she never has to leave.

“Austin is a small town compared to Houston. Barcelona is too. I’m serious.”

Once the wars began, she followed them with increasing anger, and often fantasized about becoming a CIA agent so she could assassinate Milosevic. “I imagined I would be playing a private recital for him, and that he would hit on me because he was such a pig. And then I would kill him.” Kovacic may yet take her artistic revenge on the former Serb leader, as she hopes to write an opera about the war.

Kovacic had a bright future as a classical pianist; she gave two solo performances at Carnegie Hall, the latest in 2008. “The New York critics said there was hope for me with 20th Century music,” she says.

But fate—in the form of severe tendonitis—stepped in before her second Carnegie concert. The tendonitis set in whenever she “pounded the piano,” she says. “And with my personality I have to pound.”

She couldn’t practice for three months before that second concert. “Up until the day of the concert I was wondering if I could perform.” Woozy on painkillers, she took the stage, and when she left it she knew her career as a concert pianist was over. “My hand was so swollen afterward I could hardly walk because of the pain,” she says.

So she changed the scale of her musical ambitions. Now she composes and directs children’s musicals, and plays around town at venues like the Mucky Duck, the Contemporary Arts Museum, and, this Saturday night, at the Boom Boom Room. To spare her wrist she plays an electronic keyboard, or, now, the melody horn. She also sings. Her show includes “songs from countries that I like: Brazil, Cuba, Italy” and her own compositions. Many of her songs are about local figures, such as the Art Guys. The show has a distinctively cabaret feel to it, with all the notes filtered through her larger-than-life personality. (Her husband, Joe Parani, who trains astronauts for a living, accompanies Loreta on a theremin he built from a mail-order kit.)

So what’s it like, playing the Boom Boom Room after Carnegie Hall? Is it a comedown?

“Hey! The Boom Boom Room is cool too!”

It will be even a little cooler on Saturday night.