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118 across: Pianist Ruth, six letters. Any clues?

Pianist Ruth Laredo’s name is on its way to becoming

a household word, if not up and down the length and breadth of the

land, at least among devoted crossword puzzle fans. Will Shortz, puzzle

editor of the New York Times, explains. In David J. Kahn’s April 5

puzzle, "Full Scale Effort," in the New York Times Sunday

magazine, each long answer required puzzlers to come up with a 21-letter

phrase in which was embedded all the notes of the musical scale in

the form, "do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti." The clue for

118 across was "Pianist Ruth’s audience knows exactly when to

clap?" And the correct answer was, "Laredo fans’ timing solid"

(with punctuation and spaces between words omitted for puzzle purposes).

Laredo was in good musical company in this crossword, where other

answers called for the names of conductor Georg Solti and violinist

Midori. She was not notified in advance, Laredo says in a telephone

interview from her New York home. She learned of her part in the puzzle

from a friend who landed the solution to the clue.

Laredo appears in a concert at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander

Hall on the Princeton campus Saturday, May 16, at 8 p.m in a benefit

concert sponsored by the Steinway Society. Her program includes works

by Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, Alexander

Scriabin, and Maurice Ravel. A reception follows the concert. She

also gives a master class at the Center of Theological Inquiry, 50

Stockton Street, Sunday, May 17, at noon.

Although her repertoire is broad, Laredo is particularly

known for her landmark recording of the piano sonatas of Scriabin

28 years ago, the first in North America, and the complete solo piano

music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. She reviews how it happened. "I

had never heard of Scriabin before I heard Horowitz play him, and

I fell into mad love with his music. He was a hot-house plant, and

an unusual composer. His late music is particularly remarkable. I

was intrigued. A friend in my building loaned me a recording of Scriabin’s

10 sonatas, and I never returned it. They are the most interesting

and neglected music around. They’re unusually varied. Scriabin lived

from 1872 to 1915. He started out Chopinesque or Tchaikovskyesque,

and grew into the composer of the future. He wrote the first atonal

piece. Musically, he went from Chopin to Schoenberg in one lifetime.

That’s amazing."

The Scriabin pieces on Laredo’s Princeton program are his Poeme, op.

32, No. 1, his Deux Morceaux, op. 57, and his Sonata No. 9, op. 68

(The Black Mass).

"I was not that enthralled with Rachmaninoff when I was invited

to record his piano works," Laredo says. "I played all the

Scriabin with great conviction. The record company knew my Scriabin

playing. On the basis of my interpretation of Scriabin, they thought

I would do a good job on Rachmaninoff — Scriabin and Rachmaninoff

were in school together. I grew to adore Rachmaninoff and learning

about him. He continues to inspire my life. Although he was one of

the most successful and famous musicians of the century, he was a

tremendous perfectionist, who always felt he was a failure."

Laredo sketches a picture of the musician with the narrative skill

and sensitivity to detail that have made her "Concerts with Commentary"

series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a meaty delight. The ongoing

series marked its 10th anniversary this season with programs about

the music of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Ravel. Composers dealt with

in the past include Brahms, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, and the Schumanns,

among others. Laredo describes her manner of researching the Met concerts

with utter simplicity. "I read books," she says. "I’m

on the lookout for books about certain musicians. There’s nothing

mysterious about it at all. I know what interests me, and hope that

other people will find it so as well." She’s right, but she may

underestimate the difficulty of the task she has mastered so well.

In addition to finding the telling anecdote, and putting it into its

historical setting, Laredo has a finely-tuned sense of timing that

helps her get the balance exactly right about when to play music and

when to comment.

"Rachmaninoff came to this country with his wife and children

at the age of 45," Laredo continues, much as she might say it

on the stage of the Metropolitan Museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.

"Once in the United States, he had to earn a living, and he became

a pianist because that was the best way. He learned repertoire. He

was a slave to it. He practiced all the time. Nothing ever changed

this about him. He worked hard and strove for perfection till the

end of his life."

"That’s what I so admire," says Laredo about Rachmaninoff.

"As people reach a certain level of success or financial reward,

they may no longer peruse their original goals. People change, and

make it easier on themselves. Few artists continue to strive for perfection,

at a great sacrifice to their own lives. For me Rachmaninoff is a

marvelous example."

Laredo was born Ruth Meckler in Detroit in 1937, and has played the

piano since her early childhood. She studied under Rudolf Serkin at

Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and made her New York recital debut

under the auspices of Young Concert Artists. In 1960 she married the

Bolivian-born violinist Jaime Laredo. During their marriage, the couple

performed frequently together. They were divorced in 1974.

Laredo’s appearances are not only as a piano recitalist, but also

in chamber music performances and as an orchestral soloist. Her stamina

as a musician is noteworthy. She has performed both the Brahms piano

quartet and his piano quintet on one program. In 1965 Ruth Laredo

performed in Europe with pianists Rudolf Serkin and his son Peter

Serkin.She also has collaborated with Marian McPartland and Dick Hyman

in Three Piano Classical/Jazz Crossover Concerts. "Playing with

Hyman and McPartland is very exciting," she says. "They’re

extremely marvelous musicians, with tremendous classical backgrounds.

Whatever they play, they play beautifully. It’s educational and it’s

fun. They would take off from what I play."

Laredo’s Scriabin recording was released in 1970 on

the Connoisseur label. It was said to have "finally achieved a

meaningful breakthrough" for the composer’s piano music. Transferred

to LPs in the 1980s, it has now been re-issued on two Nonesuch CDs.

Her complete Rachmaninoff recording was a five-year undertaking for

CBS Masterworks. It has been reissued on five CDs by Sony Classical.

Laredo has been nominated for three Grammy awards.

After the appearance of the Rachmaninoff recordings, international

music publisher C. F. Peters enlisted Laredo to help prepare a new

Rachmaninoff Urtext edition, which appeared by 1981. She contributed

the Preludes, opuses 23 and 31. "I found that I was getting another

education, thanks to Rachmaninoff," Laredo says. "I had to

find all these editions. The Cold War was very cold. Many of the manuscripts

were at the Glinka Museum in Moscow. But I found pieces written in

this country at the Library of Congress and the Rachmaninoff Archive

in Washington, D.C. I found one piece that I didn’t even know existed,

and a two-piano version of the C-sharp Minor Prelude in Washington.

"From the way Rachmaninoff wrote dynamics and phrasing I could

see easily that he was a man of economic means and understatement,"

she continues. "He would never have used triple pianissimos, or

put accents on almost every note. I decided that Rachmaninoff was

a man for whom less is more, and I decided that I would make a leap

of judgment. I just took the C-sharp Minor Prelude and eradicated

all those markings." It was a bold act. Conventionally the C-sharp

Minor Prelude is riddled with marks calling for large and sudden sonorities.

Finally, during a concert tour of the Soviet Union in 1989, Laredo

was able to see the Scriabin manuscripts. "They allowed me to

come to the Glinka Museum, and handed me an armful of manuscripts,"

she remembers. "I burst into tears," she says. No photocopying

was permitted, and Laredo could bring back only the notes she took.

However, her judgment was vindicated. "It was exciting to see

Rachmaninoff’s hand and how spare his markings were," she says.

"Many things just were not in those manuscripts. Nobody knows

who added all those editorial markings."

In the Soviet Union, Laredo played in the same hall where Rachmaninoff

performed at the Moscow Conservatory. In Leningrad, she had her own

agenda. "A friend told me to look for a picture of Rachmaninoff

with a mustache at Leningrad’s Philharmonic Hall," she says. The

conventional pictures of Rachmaninoff in the United States show him

immaculately close-shaven. "I found it, and had my picture taken

below the Rachmaninoff picture."

In the Soviet Union, her Rachmaninoff and Scriabin were well-received.

"It was a warm reaction," she says. "People were amazing.

They had very little to eat, and no place to buy anything. They looked

poverty-stricken. But they would give anything for concert tickets.

The USIS (United States Information Services) told us to bring clothing

for concerts that didn’t look fashionable." Well turned-out performers

would have been an additional strain on East-West relations. Laredo’s

tour of the Soviet Union was the subject of a CBS television profile.

Laredo has contributed to the literature about musicianship with a

1992 volume called, "The Ruth Laredo Becoming a Musician Book,"

a collection of essays.

At the top of the list of great teachers is Rudolf Serkin, with whom

Laredo studied at Curtis. Laredo’s pantheon of great teachers also

includes Johannes Brahms, who died in 1897, Robert Schumann, who died

in 1856, and Clara Schumann, who died in 1896. From the last three

Laredo learned only indirectly. And what she learned she could have

acquired only by expending a large amount of imagination, passion,

and tenacity. That’s the sort of effort that gets a musician into

a crossword puzzle.

— Elaine Strauss

Ruth Laredo, Steinway Society, Richardson Auditorium,

Alexander Hall, Princeton University, 609-951-9553. The society’s

annual scholarship fundraising concert. $28 to $38; children $8. Saturday,

May 16, 8 p.m.

Ruth Laredo Master Class, Steinway Society, Center

of Theological Inquiry, 50 Stockton Street, 609-951-9553. $15. Sunday,

May 17, noon.

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