Ruth Laredo

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20 Nov 1937
25 May 2005
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Ruth Laredo (November 20, 1937 – May 25, 2005) was an American classical pianist.

She became known in the 1970s in particular for her premiere recordings of the 10 sonatas of Scriabin and the complete solo piano works of Rachmaninoff, for her Ravel recordings and in the last 16½ years before her death for her series in the Metropolitan Museum of Art “Concerts with Commentary”. She was often referred to as “America’s First Lady of the Piano”.

Ruth Meckler was born on November 20, 1937, as the elder of two daughters of Miriam Meckler-Horowitz, a piano teacher, and Ben Meckler, an English teacher, in Detroit, Michigan. When she was only two years old, she was already able to play God Bless America on the piano of her mother, without being taught.

When she was eight years old, her mother took her to a concert of Vladimir Horowitz in the Masonic Auditorium in Detroit. After the concert she vowed to become a concert pianist herself. Horowitz played Scriabin, and Laredo was so fascinated by this music that she developed a lifelong passion for Scriabin and other Russian composers, including Scriabin’s contemporary Rachmaninoff.

In 1960 she moved to New York City and married the Bolivian-born violinist Jaime Laredo, who was three and a half years younger than herself.

She knew him at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and they performed together regularly until their divorce in 1974 (in some publications erroneously given as 1976). Their union produced a daughter in 1969, Jennifer, who is married to Paul Watkins, chief conductor and music director of the English Chamber Orchestra. She lives in London.

During the pregnancy and after the birth of her daughter, Ruth Laredo had to cut back the touring with her husband. Keen to record the music of Scriabin, she approached various record companies with the proposal to record all 10 sonatas by the composer. Alan Silver from the Connoisseur Society agreed to take the risk, although initially only for one LP (Sonatas No. 5, No. 7, “White Mass”, No. 9, “Black Mass”, Eight Etudes, Op. 42).

After the remarkable success of this first recording, Connoisseur offered her the opportunity of recording the remaining seven sonatas thus become the first person to have recorded his complete sonatas. This milestone marked the beginning of her identification with the public as a solo artist.

In retrospect, Laredo explains in ”The Ruth Laredo Becoming a Musician Book” (published in 1992) that this is an alternative way to embark upon a solo career: to find a niche of repertoire, something nobody had done before. The more obvious route would be to win competitions, but she never had – apart from the Young Concert Artists International Auditions – any success in important competitions.

When her daughter was older, Laredo was ready to resume touring with her husband, but was now confronted with his wish to divorce. The divorce was executed in 1974 and pushed Laredo into a personal crisis. She took a teaching job at Yale University and accepted the invitation of Thomas Z. Shepard from CBS Masterworks, who was impressed by the Scriabin recordings, to record the complete solo piano works of Rachmaninoff.

This, said Laredo, saved her life:474 and with the Rachmaninoff recordings, made from 1974 to 1979 (the latest album released in 1981), her solo career was definitely gathering momentum.

After her landmark recordings, the international music publisher C. F. Peters commissioned Ruth Laredo to edit a new Urtext edition of the complete 24 Preludes of Rachmaninoff. They were published in 1981 (Op. 3, No. 2), 1985 (Op. 23) and 1991 (Op. 32).

Laredo had thought that many of the markings in the commonly used Rachmaninoff editions were not those of the composer; after studying original manuscripts which she found at the Library of Congress and in the Rachmaninoff archive in Washington, D.C., and later also in the Glinka Museum during her tour to Russia in 1989, her suspicions were confirmed. Her new editions were much closer to the composer’s original manuscripts.:278/279

Laredo wrote also articles for the magazines Piano Today and Keyboard Classics and hosted programs for National Public Radio (NPR), Performance Today and Morning Edition) and the New York classical radio station WQXR (First Hearing and Onstage with Young Concert Artists).

In 2000 Laredo appeared in a scene of Woody Allen’s movie Small Time Crooks, where Hugh Grant tries to impress Tracey Ullman by taking her to a piano recital, where Ruth Laredo is playing Rachmaninoff.

Ruth Laredo was also known for the striking gowns (most of them made by Lincoln Center’s costume designer Catherine Heiser) she wore on stage and therefore was published in fashion magazines.

She could often be seen on riding her bicycle or jogging while listening to the music of Phil Collins or the rock group Genesis around Manhattan’s Upper West Side where she lived.

She had a strong commitment to Jewish tradition. In a lecture of the Concerts with Commentary series about Felix Mendelssohn, she discussed the significance and depth of his Jewish background.

Abraham Mendelssohn’s decision to convert to Protestantism, said Laredo, was a practical one to ensure his son’s acceptance into the music profession of Germany.

Ruth Laredo died on May 25, 2005 in her sleep in her Manhattan apartment. The cause of death was ovarian cancer, a diagnosis which was made four years before her death but did not stop her from giving concerts.

She is buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York, only a few metres away from the grave of Sergei Rachmaninoff who was so important to her life. At the funeral on May 31, 2005, two of her closest colleagues performed: Wei Gang Li from the Shanghai Quartet, and Courtenay Budd, with whom – along with the St. Petersburg String Quartet – she had given her last “Concert with Commentary” on May 6, 2005.

On May 18, 2006 her daughter Jennifer organised a memorial concert in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The participants were the Guarneri Quartet (with Paul Watkins, Jennifer’s husband), Courtenay Budd, Nicolas Kendall, Pei Yao Wang, Edmund Battersby, James Tocco as well as Susan Wadsworth, director of the Young Concert Artists, and the flutist Paula Robison.

Courtenay Budd sang Ruth Laredo’s favourite song, Franz Schubert’s An die Musik, the title of which Jennifer Laredo Watkins chose for the inscription of her mother’s gravestone.

In 2007 the Ruth Laredo Memorial Prize of the Young Concert Artists International Auditions was endowed with the contributions of the family and worldwide friends and admirers of Ruth Laredo.

She herself won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions Award in 1962 and later was a frequent and devoted member of the Jury of the Auditions (winners of the Memorial Prize so far are: Benjamin Moser, Germany, pianist; Bella Hristova, Bulgaria, violinist; Charlie Albright, USA, pianist; and George Li, USA, pianist).

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