When the Detroit-born pianist Ruth Laredo was barely into her teens and studying with a local maverick teacher named Edward Bredshall, he would often lay a trap for his precocious student by throwing dense and difficult 20th-century scores by Bart█k, Prokofiev and Stravinsky in front of her. "Betcha can't play this," he'd say.
"Oh, yeah?" Laredo would reply. Then she would tear into the music with the head-first ferocity and fervor of a hurricane. That same brazen streak of impetuosity and passion would stay with Laredo for life, fueling her journey from Detroit's west side to an elite career as one of the leading American pianists of her generation.
Laredo, the first American-born female pianist to establish an important international performing and recording career after World War II, died Thursday in her apartment in New York. She was 67. The cause of death was ovarian cancer, said her sister Rayna Kogan of West Bloomfield [Michigan].
Laredo had been living with the disease for four years but was actively performing until a few weeks ago. On May 6 she played at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of her popular, long-running performance-lecture series "Concerts with Commentary." Laredo had been scheduled to return to metro Detroit next month, as she had every June since 1995, to perform at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.
Laredo was known for the charismatic mix of fiery emotion, mercurial temperament, secure technique and intellectual grounding she brought to a wide variety of repertoire, including music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Scriabin, Ravel, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, de Falla, Barber and Rorem. She was equally comfortable performing big-boned Romantic concertos, essaying a Beethoven sonata in recital or collaborating with top chamber ensembles like the Tokyo String Quartet.
Laredo owed her widest fame to landmark recording projects begun in the 1970s devoted to a pair of Russians, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. She recorded all of Scriabin's mystical sonatas for the Connoisseur label, helping bring the works into the mainstream. For Columbia, she became the first pianist to record the complete solo works of Rachmaninoff, whose romanticism inspired some of her most compelling and colorful pianism.
"She was one of the great success stories of my generation of American pianists," said pianist James Tocco, a longtime friend and fellow native Detroiter. "She did that by virtue of talent, intelligence and sheer willpower. She was a dynamic worker and had enormous reserves of integrity and dedication to music."
For decades Laredo was known as "America's first lady of the piano," but she was always ambivalent about her talent being linked to her gender. "It's a difficult field for anyone," Laredo told the Free Press in 1982.
"I have a feeling that 15 or 20 years ago there were certain opportunities that passed me by, but I can't be sure. I have a feeling that it wasn't quite as OK to hire a female in those days as it is today."
Laredo was born Ruth Meckler on November 20, 1937. Early on she studied piano with her mother, Miriam Meckler. From age 10 to 14 she studied with Bredshall and then teamed up with Mischa Kottler, the best-known Detroit pianist of the day. Laredo made her orchestral debut at age 11 playing a movement from a Beethoven concerto with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the State Fairgrounds.
Laredo left Detroit to study with the renowned pianist and pedagogue Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, graduating in 1960. Serkin's uncompromising integrity, commitment and philosophy of textural fidelity ˇ that interpretive decisions must have their roots in the composer's score ˇ all had a profound impact on Laredo.
She made her professional orchestra debut with the American Symphony Orchestra in 1962 and eventually performed with most of the major American orchestras. She also became a regular at prestigious chamber music festivals including Marlboro and Aspen. More recently, Laredo's "Concerts with Commentary" at the Metropolitan Museum provided an ideal showcase for her engaging musicianship and communicative personality. She also played one of the first major classical music concerts in New York after 9/11, performing a long-planned recital at Avery Fisher Hall on September 13, 2001.
Laredo's discography includes more than 30 recordings, and her credits even include a cameo in Woody Allen's film Small Time Crooks, in which the protagonists attend a Laredo recital.
Laredo married violinist Jaime Laredo in 1960, from whom she was divorced in 1976. She is survived by her daughter, Jennifer Laredo of London, and one granddaughter. Funeral arrangements in New York are pending. The family asks that donations be made to the Ruth Laredo Fund at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, 20300 Civic Center, Suite 100, Southfield, MI 48076.
Though her career took her to the music capitals of the world, Laredo always reserved a special place in her heart for Detroit and she always said that her annual appearance at the Great Lakes Festival was a highlight of her year.
"It's more heart-fulfilling to play in your hometown," she once told the Free Press, "because your audience already knows you. And, assuming that they may like you since they're there, you play your heart out for them."
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