Not long ago violinist Ruggiero Ricci and his wife woke up in the middle of the night.
"Do you know where we are?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," she replied.
"Well, can you at least say whether it is Europe or America?"
"I don't know," she said. "It feels foreign. I don't think it's the U.S.A. Why don't we just quit worrying about it and go back to sleep?"
Even today Julia Ricci is not positive about where they were. She thinks it was Wales because she recalls being prompted to order Welsh rarebit the next day.
Having just celebrated his 50th year on the concert circuit, Ruggiero Ricci has good reason to be a victim of the if-this-is-Tuesday . . . syndrome. But as Ricci pointed out, "though it's been a hard life, it's been an interesting one."
Fifty years ago, he was the triple-count sissy on his San Francicso block with his bobed hair, velvet suit and violin case.Today, after five decades of musicmaking around the world, he owns a house in Palm Beach and travels with an attractive third wife named Julia, his junior by three decades.
What started Ricci on the road is the same thing that keeps him on the road -- money. Back in the '20's when he made his New York debut as an 11-year-old in Lord Fauntleroy suit; prodigies were big business. In those days money that a child earned went to the parents, and Ricci's father, a sometimes trombonist, was determined to have a prodigy, putting all seven children on instruments. Besides Ricci, the family produced two other music professionals -- a sister who plays violin in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and a brother who is a retired cellist.
Ricci, was sent to Yehudi Menuhin's teacher, and two years after Menuhin was launched in New York, ricci was put on the concert stage.
Of that debut on Oct. 20, 1929, Ricci said, "I enjoyed it. I was not a normal child, anyway. The only way I could get attention was to show off and I liked it. People would recognize me on the streets."
But a few years later, Ricci rebelled -- or thought about rebelling. He said he wanted to be a pianist. "Well, of course, my parents weren't about to have that," said Ricci. "Here I was in the middle of success and I wanted to quit and become a beginning pianist." i
There were enticements to stay with the violin. "At one time I had three or four Strads under the bed," recalled Ricci. "The instruments were meant to whet my appetite."
In 1932 there was the big European tour -- Berlin, Stockholm, Paris, Budapest, Vienna. "I was a pretty sad kid in those days," recalled Ricci. "I was traveling with my uncle and it was a lonely life. I used to know 10 different kinds of solitaire. That was all I did -- play th violin and solitaire.
"And I started getting criticism. People compared me with myself, saying I wasn't playing as well as I did at 10. That was pretty tough."
Finally, at the age of 15 Ricci decided he should either quit or make the violin his career for life. He decided on the latter: "I got to like the instrument itself and besides, I thought if I could do all that at 10 surely I ought to be able to do it at 15.
From then on, apart from a stint in the Army during the Second World War, Ricci has been on the road. As the years have gone by, his traveling has even increased rather than decreased.
"It was easier in the old days because you went by train and by boat. You couldn't do concerts one night after another like you do now," said Ricci. "If I fly to Europe I'm six hours behind and just about the time my brain straightens out it's time to come back."
The life Ricci describes is one of discipline -- being careful about how much he eats, ignoring poor concert halls or bad accommodations, rising above bad conductors, going on with the music, regardless.
"I've been in so many strange places that strange places seem normal," said Ricci. "I've learned to do things like leave the bathroom light on at night so that if the telephone rings I can see where it is. I've also discovered that it's best with the TV set on. If you practice the violin by itself somebody always complains.But if you turn on the TV set and then practice, somehow that makes it okay."
He has, of course, had disasters of all sizes. In India he once looked up from the music to see a large spider descending in the direction of his accompanist's head. Between violin passages, Ricci, who is barely five feet tall, battled the spider with his bow. On another occasion, in Brazil, Ricci and his pianist were inadvertently locked on stage. When the concert was over, they bowed and turned to find they could not get out the door. As the audience first applauded, then laughed, they pounded on the door for help.
Once, during a performance of Ginastera's concerto, the music fell to the floor. "Fortunately, it fell face up," recalled Ricci, "so I played the rest of the piece following the score on the floor.
During a televised concert with the Boston Symphony during the '50's, Ricci's bow split. "For a moment, I didn't realize what had happened because part of the bow was still on the string" said Ricci. "Then I reached over and grabbed the concertmaster's bow and finished. It's all there on the tape."
A number of times Ricci has played the wrong music because programs were changed and he was not told. "In New England once I played the Prokoviev sonata for solo violin," he recalled chuckling. "On the way to the airport the manager asked me why I didn't play the last two movements of the Hindemith (it has five movements -- the Prokoviev has three). I had wondered why they didn't applaud when I finished the Prokoviev."
Clearly, the 50 years have turned Ricci into the unflappable professional. I've even gone back to towns where I said I would never play again because I'd forgotten that I had said that," conceded Ricci.
Ricci recently traded his New York residence for a Palm Beach house in order to give himself more of a change of pace for the five to six weeks a year he does not tour. He is able to see his five children, mostly when their performing schedules cross, because all except one have taken up careers in the arts.
What keeps him on the concert trail? "Well, two divorces and a house in Palm Beach are expensive," said Ricci. "I wouldn't retire to do nothing, but I would enjoy teaching and making records. I don't need the applause of the audience. I'm not sure it was ever that important to me."
"What keeps you going, what keeps this from becoming drudgery," said Ricci, "are the challenges to make you grow. That's why I keep pushing myself to do new repertoire. Sometimes even a bad conductor can be a challenge because that puts more responsiblity on me."
"Of course, you come back to the hotel room at night and you're alone. An hour before, you were in a hall with people applauding and screaming. That can be difficult, but that's where the discipline comes in," said Ricci. t
"I figure I'm good for ten years more," he added. "I don't want to keep on after my playing starts going downhill. Of course, everybody says that and then they don't quit.