Sunday, August 12, 2012

Our Ruggiero Ricci

When I was around twelve years old, I spent my summers playing trombone in the woods of Long Island at an arts camp called USDAN. It was great to play all day; that intense regimen was the first step on my path to professional musicianship.

Every day after lunch, there'd be a performance of some sort. They'd bring in dry chamber music groups for us to yawn through, prissy ballet for us to smirk through, not-particularly-swinging jazz, and a profusion of fat, screaming, warbling opera singers, several of whom elicited such unbridled laughter that, to our immense gratification, divas would huffily stomp off in mid-performance. We were reasonably talented kids, but not prodigies, so most of these programs left us nearly as bored and squirmy as they'd have left civilian pre-teens.

Except one. One performance was awaited as eagerly as our late afternoon ice cream pops. Each summer violinist Ruggiero Ricci would show up. None of us knew his reputation (that he'd been a prodigy, touring professionally since age 12; that he'd made 500 recordings; that he was astoundingly versatile, playing everything from Bach to Mendelssohn to the most contemporary repertoire). We knew nothing of his professional accomplishments (this wasn't one of his career's hotter periods). We did, however, remember his show-stopping annual appearances.

Ricci played with a showy, bravura style, but that's not what captured us. We had excellent bullshit detectors. It was his incredible musicality and feeling. After each selection, we, the hardest-to-please audience in show biz, would stand on our chairs, screaming at the top of our lungs and pounding our hands black and blue. One summer we made the poor guy play three encores.

Ricci had been warmly received all over the world since 1930, but figures like him realize they'd be received the same if they played safe and coasted. Name and reputation stir audiences more reliably than interpretation and lyricism. But Ricci never had a purer audience than us, because we didn't know him from a hole in the wall. We, a bunch of mall rats from the Long Island suburbs destined to mature into Howard Stern's primary fan base, just really loved his playing. Out of the sea of highbrow contenders paraded before us, we'd unanimously selected him.

In fact, for all my life, I've continued to think of Ricci like one of the great unknown little restaurants I've sussed out. Even after having learned who this guy actually was, I still regard him as one of my discoveries, and I'll bet many of the other kids feel likewise. He was our Ruggiero Ricci.

Alas, Ricci (who was old even when I was 12) died last week, at age 94. As one of the sharp-eared youngsters who recognized the maestro's greatness, I can't help feeling a tinge of childish pride for all he accomplished.

Here he is not many years later. I don't know about you, but he still makes me want to jump up on my chair and slam my hands together till they hurt:

Here's some suggested listening.

1 comment:

joshi said...

back in the day when bombay was a sleepy backwater, we had the rare good luck to have ricci come and play a concert for us.

this was during a time when musicians never came to india - we had no foreign exchange, couldn't pay much and (probably) had severe restrictions on how much of the meagre fee you could exchange into dollars.

so ricci coming to play was thrilling - we talked about it for days before and couldn't believe in the days after; we dressed up in all finery and went to honor him. i'll never forget the encore - a paganini piece - so THATS what a violin can do.

god bless him.

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