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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.
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
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
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.
of Theological Inquiry, 50 Stockton Street, 609-951-9553. $15. Sunday,
May 17, noon.
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