Memorial fund creates lasting legacy for acclaimed late pianist

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 28, 2015

 Clockwise from top left: Laredo, Tocco, Yamaguchi and Ito

Clockwise from top left: Laredo, Tocco, Yamaguchi and Ito


DETROIT — Just before her death from ovarian cancer in 2005, pianist Ruth Laredo asked that her tombstone read “An die Musik.”

Those three simple words — the title of one of Franz Schubert’s most memorable songs — may seem cryptic, but for those familiar with the German lyrics, they’re beautifully fitting for Laredo, an internationally renowned musician who was dubbed “America’s First Lady of the Piano.” The song is about music’s power to make life brighter; as one of the lines reads, music “transported me into a better world.”

And now, her friends and colleagues in the classical music community are making sure Laredo’s legacy lives on. The Tuesday Musicale of Detroit is establishing the Ruth Laredo “An die Musik” Memorial Fund for Outstanding Young Musicians. TMD’s 2015 Artist of the Year concert — which will feature acclaimed pianist and Detroit native James Tocco — will be a benefit for the fund, and will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 8 at the Max M. Fisher Music Center at Orchestra Hall in Detroit. Also performing that night will be two gifted young musicians: 11-year-old pianist Naomi Yamaguchi, of Rochester Hills, and 12-year-old violinist Miray Ito, of Ann Arbor.

Retired opera singer Dina Soresi Winter, of Grosse Pointe Shores, said she was familiar with the Schubert song, but the fact that Laredo chose these words — and only these words — for her tombstone inscription got Winter thinking.

“It was a hieroglyph for what she wanted as a message to the world,” Winter said. “I was moved by the fact that this pianist chose this song to reveal to the world what music meant to her.”

Having Tocco perform at this concert is especially appropriate, considering the close relationship he had with Laredo, with whom he performed many times. A Detroiter like Laredo, Tocco grew up on the city’s east side; he now has residences in Bethesda, Maryland, and Cincinnati. Tocco, the founding artistic director of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival and the Eminent Scholar/Artist in Residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, said he and Laredo were like siblings, and she used to call him her “twin.”

“The one word I would use to describe Ruth Laredo, both as a musician and as a person, is ‘passionate,’” said Tocco in an email interview. “She cared very deeply about her art, and she cared very deeply about the people she was close to. She was generous with her time and energy, and she never backed away from a challenge.”

One concert in particular exemplified this.

“I remember very well when she was getting ready to perform what turned out to be her last public concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City,” Tocco said. “She was to play the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio, which is one of the most demanding and physically exhausting pieces in the repertoire. She called me because she was having incredible problems of pain due to neuropathy caused by her chemotherapy. She was afraid she would not be able to perform up to her usual standard. Well, it turned out that she played a superb concert, perhaps one of her finest. Two weeks later, she was dead. That was the Ruth Laredo I knew.”

Although he will continue to perform, this is likely the last full concert for Tocco, who is now in his 70s. Tocco said he won’t be playing work from Laredo’s famous repertoire because he feels it would be disrespectful to her, and “she herself played it so much better.” Instead, he’ll be playing works in keeping with his own musical style.

“The music I am playing on May 8 is all very dear to my heart,” Tocco said. “I have had a long-standing love affair with the music of Handel, and am happy finally to be able to present to my fans in Detroit one of his most beautiful keyboard suites, the one in F Major. Following that, I will play four of the 10 pieces from the monumental collection of Franz Liszt entitled ‘Harmonies poétiques et religieuses,’ the first work he published after he retired from active concert life. These pieces reflect not Liszt the virtuoso, but a much more introspective man whose piety and faith were quite misunderstood by his contemporaries and critics. I have had much satisfaction during the past two seasons programming this entire cycle, most recently for the annual convention of the American Liszt Society, and in November I will have the honor of presenting it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“After intermission comes a change of pace with six delightful miniatures by the now shamefully neglected Norwegian master Edward Grieg,” Tocco continued. “Grieg’s music was enormously popular, not only in his lifetime, but through the entire first half of the 20th century. It is beautifully crafted and contains astonishing melodic and harmonic invention. Many of these short pieces older members of my audience will recognize because they were staples of the teaching repertoire at the time of my own childhood. I have recently rediscovered them and look forward to bringing them to life once again. And finally, I will end my program with one of the concert staples of my beloved teacher Magda Tagliaferro. In 1983, when she was 92 years old, she performed a solo recital at Indiana University, where I was a member of the piano faculty. The last piece on her program was the ‘Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante’ of Chopin, and she brought the house down with it.”

Winter said they hope to raise $67,000 — $1,000 for each of Laredo’s years of life — in the coming years for her memorial fund. Student recipients will be able to use the money to further their musical studies. The goal of the fund, say organizers, is that it will go on in perpetuity, long after the lives of those who established it.

“We want it to continue,” Winter said.

Tocco said Laredo “would have been thrilled” about the fund.

“One of her greatest concerns was to help young, gifted musicians, because she realized through her own experience what a tough road lies ahead of them,” Tocco said. “She was an active teacher at the Manhattan School of Music and constantly sought opportunities to further the cause of young artists.”

Concert tickets are $35 for adults, $20 for students with school identification, or $75-$125 for preferred seating. For tickets or more information, call (313) 520-8663 or (313) 885-7882.