Ruth Laredo; 'America's First Lady of the Piano'

Ruth Laredo was known for interpretations of Russian and French music.
Ruth Laredo was known for interpretations of Russian and French music. (Gurtman And Murtha Artist Management)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 28, 2005

Ruth Laredo, a concert pianist whose dynamic and graceful performances made her one of the leading classical virtuosos of the past three decades, died May 25 of ovarian cancer at her apartment in New York. She was 67.

Often called "America's first lady of the piano," Ms. Laredo cultivated a glamorous stage presence but demanded to be accepted on purely musical terms. She was especially known for her interpretations of difficult Russian and French music, but she was equally at home with the full piano repertoire, from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to the works of 20th-century composers.

A New York Times headline once pronounced her a "Lady Tiger at the Keyboard," and a 1995 Washington Post review of a performance at the National Gallery of Art described her as "a singularly intense performer with an almost trancelike focus at the piano."

Ms. Laredo also had a gift for communicating her joy in music through words, as well as her playing. She wrote for music journals and delivered arts commentary on National Public Radio and the New York radio station WQXR. Beginning in 1988, she initiated a series of "concerts with commentary" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in which she spoke about the lives of composers and the nature of their music.

After a promising musical apprenticeship, in which she studied with pianist Rudolf Serkin and renowned cellist Pablo Casals, Ms. Laredo made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1963, performing with conductor Leopold Stokowski. Her 1967 recording of music by French composer Maurice Ravel was called definitive. But she spent much of the first decade of her career as accompanist to her husband, Bolivian-born violinist Jaime Laredo.

She made her greatest mark on the classical world in the 1970s, with an ambitious series of recordings of the piano works of Russian composers Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Her Scriabin recordings brought renewed interest in the demanding composer and led to Ms. Laredo's further exploration of the Russian repertoire. From 1974 to 1979, she released seven albums of the complete solo compositions of Rachmaninoff.

"I felt at first as if I were working on a chain gang," she wrote of the fiendishly difficult material.

Slender and barely 5 feet tall, Ms. Laredo noted that Rachmaninoff was 6 feet 4 inches tall, with large hands. After practicing his music, she had to have her hands massaged. She later edited Rachmaninoff's piano compositions for publication and often performed his music in concert, including in the 2000 Woody Allen film "Small Time Crooks."

She was born Ruth Meckler in Detroit on Nov. 20, 1937, and at age 2, without any training, sat at the piano and played "God Bless America." Her mother was her first teacher, and by the time Ms. Laredo was 8, when she saw Vladimir Horowitz in concert, she was determined to be a pianist.

Horowitz, she later wrote, "sat a mere five feet away from my Buster Brown shoes. . . . The world stood on its head when I heard this man play."

She studied with Serkin at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and with Casals at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. After her divorce in 1974, her solo career blossomed with performances on the world's leading stages and with preeminent orchestras. Critics and musicians generally considered her the foremost American-born female pianist of her generation.

In addition to Ravel, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, Ms. Laredo recorded albums of works by Beethoven, Chopin, Stravinsky and American composers Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem. Critics praised her sensitivity and elegance while noting her "Herculean" ability to negotiate the powerful cascades of music in Rachmaninoff and other composers. She was nominated for three Grammy Awards.

In recent years, she often performed chamber music with flutist Paula Robison and with the Tokyo String Quartet. Since 1996, she had appeared in a series of crossover concerts with jazz pianists Marian McPartland and Dick Hyman. She was also known for the striking gowns she wore on stage.

She was the author of a short book, "The Ruth Laredo Becoming a Musician Book" (1992), about the demands of being a classical musician.

"The artist's life," she wrote, "is a tough one -- rigorous, demanding, but filled with the immense satisfaction of carrying on the hallowed tradition of great music."

Survivors include a daughter, Jennifer Laredo of London, and a granddaughter.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company