A pathbreaker among female performers, pianist Ruth Laredo (1937–2005) was a powerful player who ranked among the top American classical musicians of her generation.
Laredo's career was noteworthy for reasons other than her gender. She tackled and mastered some of the most extremely difficult pieces in the entire piano repertory, those by the Russian composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin, releasing pioneering, complete recordings of their piano works. Although few classical pianists were comfortable playing jazz, Laredo performed enthusiastically with jazz legends, and, in contrast to most other classical musicians, Laredo often talked about the music she played. A thinker and investigator as well as a thrilling virtuosa, Ruth Laredo was an innovative presence in classical music over a career that lasted more than 40 years. She was often called "America's First Lady of the Piano."
Played "God Bless America" at Two
Born Ruth Meckler on November 20, 1937, in Detroit, Michigan, Laredo showed early signs of becoming a child prodigy. When she was two years old, she played "God Bless America," without any instruction, on the family piano. Her mother Miriam started giving her lessons and took her to see Vladimir Horowitz, a legendary concert pianist, when she was eight. Horowitz, she recalled (as quoted by Matt Schudel of the Washington Post) "sat a mere five feet away from my Buster Brown shoes…. The world stood on its head when I heard this man play." From that day on, Laredo was determined to become a concert pianist.
Another noteworthy feature of that Horowitz concert was that he played the music of Scriabin, an unorthodox composer of early twentieth-century Russia, who had a strong interest in synaesthesia (cross-sensory perceptions, such as seeing colors when one hears music). His music was rarely heard in the United States at the time. From then on, Laredo developed a strong interest in Russian music. She took piano lessons from a Russian immigrant, Mischa Kotler, who gave her faint praise, and she began giving recitals at the Music Club of Metropolitan Detroit.
Enrolling at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Laredo studied piano with Rudolf Serkin, a Bohemian-born pianist whose tastes and skills ran to the Beethoven-Schubert-Brahms line of Central European composers. The atmosphere was high-minded. "The word 'career' was never mentioned," Laredo recalled to Bernard Holland of the New York Times. At first, he took a dim view of her passion for the music of Rachmaninoff, a Russian virtuoso who had fled Communism and spent the last part of his life in the U.S. In the summer, she went to the Marlboro Festival in Vermont for further studies with cellist Pablo Casals. She graduated in 1960 and married Bolivian-born violinist Jaime Laredo. The marriage broke up in the mid-1970s but produced a daughter, Jennifer Laredo, who was raised by Ruth Laredo during the years that marked the apex of her career.
In 1962 Laredo made her debut at an orchestral concert, performing with the American Symphony Orchestra under flamboyant conductor Leopold Stokowski at New York's Carnegie Hall. In the early years of her career, Laredo devoted herself mostly to appearing as an accompanist to her husband. She was still young, and appearances by female pianists were still comparatively rare. "Every time we did interviews in those early days," Laredo's manager James Murtha told Daniel J. Wakin of the New York Times, she was asked how does it feel to be a woman pianist. She wanted to be a pianist, period."
Explored Scriabin Sonatas
In 1967 Laredo made a well-received album of piano music by French composer Maurice Ravel, also renowned for music full of pianistic challenges. But it was a series of recordings of Scriabin's ten piano sonatas for the Connoisseur label that, Laredo said (according to the Daily Telegraph), "put me on the map." At the time, few recordings of Scriabin's music were available, and Laredo's sparked a new wave of interest in the composer. New York Times critic Holland wrote of the Scriabin set that "Ms. Laredo's sensuous, beautifully controlled playing caught its mad and slightly evil quality." Laredo's Scriabin LPs were reissued on the Nonesuch label and remained in print decades later. Laredo was fascinated by the evolution in Scriabin's musical personality over time; beginning with a conventional musical language derived from Chopin and other well-loved nineteenth-century piano composers, he evolved into a highly personal style filled with mystical allusions, some of them concerned with dark, occult themes. She was untroubled by those, telling Holland that "I don't know what words like 'good' or 'ennobling' mean in terms of music, but I know what beautiful means, and Scriabin is very beautiful."
Next, on a series of seven LPs made for the major Columbia label between 1973 and 1979, Laredo turned to her other major Russian interest, Rachmaninoff. Her teacher Rudolf Serkin, despite his earlier discouragement, now urged her on: "I went to Rudy and asked, 'Do you think I can do it?'" she told Holland. "'You must do it,' was the answer he gave me." Her lack of confidence was natural, for Rachmaninoff's music was perhaps the toughest in the mainstream classical repertory. Well over six feet tall, he had large hands, and he wrote much of his music for his own use as a touring concert pianist. His works posed major challenges for the five-foot Laredo, who had to undergo hand massages after practicing some of Rachmaninoff's more fiendish scores. "I had to learn the many, many Rachmaninoff pieces that no one plays, and I found out why no one does," she told Holland. "It's because they're so hard." The Rachmaninoff album set won a best keyboard artist award from Record World magazine and brought Laredo one of her three Grammy award nominations.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, Laredo reaped the rewards of her Rachmaninoff boot camp. The plum spots on American concert seasons began to come her way; she made her debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1974, and gave a solo recital at Carnegie Hall in 1981. That year, she also edited a series of printed scores of Rachmaninoff's piano music. Other high-profile appearances included concerto performances with orchestras in Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit. She played at the Library of Congress in Washington and made an appearance at the White House.
Despite her star status, Laredo continued to enjoy performing chamber music—music for small ensembles—with other musicians. She frequently appeared in concert with the Tokyo String Quartet and several other top quartets, performing piano quartets (piano plus three stringed instruments) and piano quintets (piano plus string quartet). An intense artist, Laredo sometimes had a reputation for being difficult to get along with, although others disputed this characterization.
Began to Offer Concerts with Commentary
Laredo moved slightly out of the spotlight in the late 1980s and 1990s, but she continued to perform extensively. She also succeeded in broadening her activities beyond conventional classical concerts, and in the process she found an outlet for her desire to express her thoughts about music. Beginning in 1988 or 1989, she performed a series called Concerts with Commentary at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, playing piano works from various eras of the classical tradition and also discussing them verbally. The concerts were out of the norm in the classical scene, where an age-old idea that music speaks for itself created a tradition in which performers tend to enter, play, and leave the stage silently. But many of the concerts sold out, and they continued until May 6, 2005, three weeks before Laredo's death. Laredo also wrote a column for Piano Today magazine and filed reports as a special correspondent for the "Morning Edition" news program on National Public Radio (NPR).
She also wrote a combination autobiography and guide for aspiring classical performers, The Ruth Laredo Becoming a Musician Book. A familiar figure on New York City stages in the 1990s, Laredo sometimes showed up in fashion magazine spreads thanks to the simple but distinctive designer gowns in which she performed. But she also traveled to small towns and college auditoriums to perform; she believed that being a classical musician brought both joys and challenges associated with carrying on a long artistic tradition, and she was always an eloquent spokesperson for that tradition.
On September 13, 2001, Laredo faced the unenviable task of performing the first concert at New York's Lincoln Center since the terrorist attacks of September 11 of that year. The concert had been slated to honor Laredo on the 25th anniversary of her New York recital debut at Alice Tully Hall, but the concert, in the words of Anne Midgette of the New York Times, turned into "an effort to raise a voice against the towering silence." "It was important for me to play," Laredo told the audience before the concert (according to Midgette). "Great music gives us spiritual sustenance and gives us hope. It is in that spirit that I play tonight." She concluded the program with Maurice Ravel's La valse (The Waltz), a work of the World War I era in which a reminiscence of the golden age of the waltz filters through a musical landscape filled with violence and gloom.
Toward the end of her life, Laredo turned to jazz, an enterprise in which she once again had few forerunners in the classical sphere. She often appeared with jazz revivalist pianist Dick Hyman and NPR "Piano Jazz" host Marian McPartland, trading licks with them on the same keyboard at times. Laredo also enjoyed pop music and could be seen jogging around Manhattan's Upper West Side, where she lived, listening to the music of rock group Genesis. In the year 2000, Laredo was seen performing a classical concert in the Woody Allen film Small Time Crooks.
In addition to her landmark Rachmaninoff and Scriabin sets, Laredo made about 30 other albums, most of which remained in print at the time of her death. Some, such as a duo recording she made with pianist James Tocco of the two-piano version of Igor Stravinsky's ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), gained wide attention. Laredo was considered a Romantic pianist in the vein of the great virtuosos whose works she played; pianistic fireworks balanced by carefully textured quieter passages remained the primary attractions of her performances. But her recordings covered music of various eras and places; she performed French and Spanish music enthusiastically, looked back to Beethoven and the earlier Romantics, and recorded piano music by the American melodist Samuel Barber.
Few people knew that Laredo was suffering from ovarian cancer for the last several years of her life; she continued to perform and make recordings almost without interruption. In 2004 she visited the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in Minnesota to serve as a judge in a two-week piano competition. "We had no idea she was ill," competition director Alexander Braginsky told Michael Anthony of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "She was so feisty and opinionated, a powerful personality." The First Lady of American Piano died at her New York apartment on May 25, 2005.
Laredo, Ruth, The Ruth Laredo Becoming a Musician Book, European American Music Corp., 1992.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 10, 2005.
Independent (London, England), June 1, 2005.
Fresno Bee, March 18, 2001.
Keyboard, September 1, 2005.
New York Times, January 16, 1981; September 20, 1987; September 15, 2001; May 27, 2005.
Roanoke Times, October 2, 2003.
Star Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), May 28, 2005.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), June 12, 2005.
Washington Post, May 28, 2005.
"Discography," Ruth Laredo Official Website, http://www.ruthlaredo.com (December 18, 2005).