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David Yonan

Ruggiero Ricci 1918-2012 - A Personal Remembrance

August 24, 2012 at 4:02 AM

It was with great sadness that I learned of Ruggiero Ricci's passing on August 6, 2012. Ruggiero Ricci was truly the last great violinist of the 20th century. He was one of the great child prodigies, who gave his historic Carnegie Hall debut at age 11 and performed as a child for famous people such as Albert Einstein, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Fritz Kreisler. He was the first violinist to ever record the 24 Paganini Caprices. He premiered the Ginastera violin concerto as well as works by many other contemporary composers, and he discovered unknown works of the Romantic era. He made more than 500 recordings and performed well over 6000 concerts in 65 countries. He had a tremendous influence on the string world as well as on classical music world overall.

But Ruggiero Ricci's passing was also a tremendous loss personally for me -- I wouldn't be the violinist and person I am today without him. It was my mother, and my violin teacher, Abraham Jaffe, who encouraged and prepared me to audition for the first International Ruggiero Ricci violin master class festival and competition in my hometown Berlin when I was 12 years old. At the time, I was preparing for my debut at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. I was very excited to have the opportunity to audition for Mr. Ricci, who was already a living violin legend at that time. About 50 contestants from all over Europe auditioned, and only 10 would be accepted for a week of public master classes with Maestro Ricci, with a final concert and awards ceremony. The awards were solo engagements with major orchestras in Germany.  

These master classes were highly publicized in the Berlin media, which gave an extra edge of excitement. I had prepared Bach's Sonata in G minor, Lalo's Symphony Espagnole, and Sarasate's Introduction and Tarantella, all favorite pieces of Mr. Ricci. When the results came out, I was overwhelmed with joy. I was one of the lucky 10 violinists selected for the privilege of working with the Maestro for an entire week. I was also the youngest.

In Berlin
A young David Yonan with Ruggiero Ricci in Berlin, 1987

Little did I know what an intensive week of work would lay ahead of me! Though kind and encouraging, Mr. Ricci's standards were the highest. He had no patience for faulty intonation or rhythm, for tasteless glissandos, or for unintelligent phrasing. He would make that very clear, even if it was in front of 300 people. At the time, he also did not believe in playing with a shoulder rest, and he made me play without one for the week. (Since then, he did change his approach on that subject.)   

A vivid memory I have from that week was from one master class, when he did his notoriously famous "scroll-to-wall" test: I had to play Sarasate's Introduction and Tarantella with the scroll against the wall, and without moving the violin. The purpose of that very efficient exercise was to lessen the weight of the fingers of the left hand during shifts. Little did I know that Mr. Ricci would become an influential mentor to me for the next 26 years. It was he who recommended that I continue my studies with the renowned violin pedagogues Roland and Almita Vamos at the Music Institute of Chicago, and later with Professor Werner Scholz at the Berlin "Hanns Eisler" Music Academy, both whom Mr. Ricci held in the highest regard.  

As the years went by, the Ricci master classes and competition in Berlin became more and more sought after. In 1995, more than 200 people from all over the world auditioned. He continued to accept only 10 violinists by live audition, no matter if one came from Berlin, New York, or China. These annual master classes and competitions were created by the late Guido Schlemmer and his wife Astrid, who continued this tradition for 10 years until 1997. Guido, a local violin teacher at a community music school in Berlin, had met Mr. Ricci at the Carl Flesch Academy in Baden-Baden, Germany, and was inspired by his artistic mastery and determined to create an annual festival to celebrate Ruggiero Ricci's art in Berlin, where Mr. Ricci had given his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at age 12 and where he studied for some time.

Again I competed, but this time against many more contestants than in 1987. I played the Sibelius Concerto, Kreisler, Recitativo and Scherzo Caprice and Wieniawski's Faust Fantasy, and I was honored to win the top prize: to perform in a subscription concert with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall.   

As the years went by, I attended every concert he gave at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall and elsewhere, and I continued to play for Mr. Ricci when I had to prepare for important concerts. At this time, he was professor at the Mozarteum Academy in Salzburg, Austria. I realized then that individual lessons with Mr. Ricci were very different from a public master class. A lesson might last six hours or more, ending only when his wonderful and devoted wife, Julia, would call him to dinner (and students were always invited to join.) I will never forget the generous hospitality of the Riccis. After a lesson, we would listen to recordings of all of the violin greats: Kreisler, Heifetz, Oistrakh, Heifetz, Milstein, Gitlis, and Pikaizen, all with whom he had friendly personal relations. Those were truly inspiring years.

In 1995, the International Music Festival in Iserlohn, Germany, presented an International Ruggiero Ricci Competition, under the auspices of the European Union. Mr. Ricci immediately suggested that I compete. As in most international competitions, the competition had three rounds, with repertoire that was very demanding. The jury was of the highest caliber: Ruggiero Ricci (president of the Jury), Igor Oistrakh, Victor Pikaizen, Herrman Kerbbers, and Igor Ozim.  After months of preparation with my teacher Werner Scholz in Berlin, he suggested that I play for Ricci before the competition. I traveled to Mr. Ricci's house in Salzburg, and he gave me his blessings.

I took a train to the competition wearing jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, listening to recordings. At some point, I fell asleep. By the time I woke up and arrived, my entire suitcase with my concert attire was gone! There was a press conference for all the contestants and judges, and everyone was surprised to see what I had come to the competition wearing. I was terrified!  Obviously I couldn't perform like that. Mrs. Ricci immediately announced that she had to buy new clothes for me. She took me to the best boutique in the town and said that I should choose the best tuxedo and suit for each round. I felt rather intimidated and obliged by her offer, and I asked Mrs. Ricci how I could ever pay her back. She responded that I could pay her back by winning a prize in the competition. To this day I remember how I played the fiercely difficult Ysaye Sonata No. 6 in the semi-final round, with one thought: that I had to make it to final round to pay back Mrs. Ricci! I eventually won second place and paid her back in full.  

In 1998, I was selected to compete in the Indianapolis violin competition, and Mr. Ricci was on the Jury panel. I was happy to see him, his wife Julia, and his poodle, Pamina, again. Pamina was the Riccis' beloved mascot and would often give her approval with a howl at my performances -- I noticed this also during my performance in Indianapolis. She was a special part of Mr. Ricci's life, and traveled with him and Julia in a little handbag, wherever they went.

Mr. Ricci was a very kind, humble and generous person; he didn't have an aura of arrogance or snobbism around him despite all of his legendary accomplishments and popularity. He didn't have a big ego, which was something I always admired about him.

Often when I hit a roadblock in practicing and preparing certain virtuoso pieces, I would pick up the phone and call him. Even over the phone, he would always have a solution to the problem. Several times I played for him the 24 Paganini Caprices, knowing he was the absolute authority on them, having been the first person to record them in 1947 and then recording them four more times throughout his life. His approach to the left hand was one of utmost elegance, economy and style. His left hand pizzicato was hard to believe and impossible to beat. Even in later years, watching his technique was like observing a natural phenomenon. You would learn so much by just watching and listening to him.  

His modest lifestyle and matter-of-fact attitude made it rewarding to be around him. On top of that, he had a great sense of humor. He was always interested in hearing about my latest accomplishments and developments in my career, often giving me important career and life advice. For example, in 2000, the famous violin pedagogue Dorothy Delay invited me to continue my studies with her at the Juilliard School with a full scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Program, and Mr. Ricci recommended I take that offer. Delay's class was for decades the mecca for every young violinist from around the world, and I was excited to come back to the United States, where I had studied as a teenager with the Vamoses.  

When I began lessons with Ms. Delay that year, I had no clue that the next year -- in 2001 -- America would be hit with one of the greatest tragedies in its history, on Sept. 11. The following year, Ms. Delay passed away from cancer. With the passing of Ms. Delay, I had to make some very difficult life decisions: whether I wanted to continue my career in the U.S. or go back to Germany. In 2002, I decided to move back to Chicago, which has been my home ever since. That same year, Mr. Ricci moved from Europe to Palm Springs, California, to enjoy a warmer and drier climate. I made annual visits to Palm Springs, to play for him and spend quality time together.    

Meanwhile in Chicago, the late Geoff Fushi started a master class series in his legendary violin shop, Bein and Fushi, in the historic Fine Arts Building. In the same building, I started my own concert series, the Fine Arts Music Society, of which Mr. Ricci was an honorary member of the advisory board. The Chicago media publicized those master classes and I established myself quickly as a concert violinist in the city by performing all 24 Paganini Caprices in a tribute concert to Mr. Ricci during one of Mr. Ricci's visits to Chicago in 2002. I had already performed them successfully at the Aspen Music Festival and was excited for the opportunity to perform them in Mr. Ricci's presence in Chicago. The day of the performance was hit by a blizzard, and I doubted whether or not the Maestro would arrive. Needless to say, I felt honored when he walked through the door, with snow on his coat, despite the unfortunate weather. When Mr. Ricci promised to be somewhere, he would be there. Similarly, if I asked him to write me recommendations for competitions or conductors, they would usually arrive within a couple of days after I requested them, in the mail.

In 2003/04 I became very interested in Mr. Ricci's solo transcriptions, some which have been never published. During a visit to his home in Palm Springs in 2004, we went over his famous Tarrega "Recuerdos del Alhambra" and "Spanish Romance" guitar transcriptions, as well as his cadenzas for the Brahms concerto.

We also went over the complete solo Sonatas of Eugene Ysaye, which he recorded in their entirety. I vividly remember how he stopped me after the first page of Ysaye Sonata No. 2, the movement "Obsession," which is based on Bach's Prelude from the Partita No. 3 in e-Major. He stopped me and shouted, "Do you have rushitis?" It took me a moment to understand what he meant and that he was referring to my rushed playing. We both laughed -- that was his way of loosening you up during a lesson.

It was a great honor, when he allowed me to make a copy of his "Spanish Romance" transcription's handwritten dedication -- it is now framed and will always remind me of that particular visit, in which we covered mostly violin solo repertoire.

Mr. Ricci continued to perform until 2003, when he gave his last public performance at the Smithsonian Institute in New York. He continued to listen to and teach young violinists until the very end of his life. In fact, he continued to perform in public master classes up until 2010. His home in Palm Springs remained a very inspiring place, where he would share his knowledge of the violin with visitors from around the world. Often a lesson would last an entire day, with shared meals and listening to recordings. By that time, I had established a String Performance Program for highly gifted violinists in the Fine Arts Building, and I would prepare deserving young students of my program to play for him at the Bein & Fushi Ricci master classes. It was a very inspiring and rewarding experience for them as well. I became even more interested in Mr. Ricci's recordings, especially re-releases from his early years, which were not available for some time.  All of the major record labels such as Decca, Vox, started to put out tribute compilations albums of his music, and I became more aware of his significance in music history -- and the time spent with him was becoming more precious.  

A major milestone for Mr. Ricci was when he published his second book, Ricci on Glissando, with Indiana University Press, which is a continuation of his first book, Left-Hand Violin Technique, published 20 years earlier by Shirmer. The book is accompanied by a DVD and explains in great detail Mr. Ricci's philosophy on the artistry of his left and right hand technique. While acknowledging the publications by the significant pedagogues Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian, he makes the case of a more fluid approach to the violin by going back to the art of Paganini, Spohr, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, Ernst, and other great Romantic violin virtuosos whose works he performed like no one else and which he knew from the inside out.  I preordered it and immediately shared it with my students.  

In 2007, I planned a trip to "Casa Ricci" with three selected young students from my program to do a chapter-by-chapter review the book with the author himself, all filmed on DVD. Every day, my students, their parents, and I would meet the Maestro at noon, for an entire week. He would teach until dusk, teaching the great violin repertoire and going over each chapter of the book. It was for me the most intensive week with the maestro. 

In Palm Springs
At Mr. Ricci's home in Palm Springs, 2007

This was also the last time that I performed the 24 Paganini Caprices for Mr. Ricci. He pointed out 26 misprints in the Paganini, which I had not realized before, although I had studied them with the critical Urtext Editions by Henle and Ricordi. The trip was truly inspiring for me and my students and thus in 2009, I approached my teachers Roland and Almita Vamos to present the book in Chicago for their students. We arranged a Fine Arts Music Society master class and book presentation in April 2009, given by Mr. Ricci at the Music Institute of Chicago, which was attended by many prominent musicians in Chicago.   

For one last time we all witnessed a musical legend. A legendary man, who made the difficult and successful transition from world-famous child prodigy to one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. It was a wonderful celebration of his art and his life, and it was his last trip to Chicago. Afterwards we celebrated with a dinner in a local Italian restaurant, accompanied by students and friends, with whom he shared many humorous anecdotes of his amazing long life with a chuckle in his voice and his witty, dry sense of humor. He loved sharing his vast knowledge and wisdom with the younger generations, whom he inspired with his extraordinary artistry and generous personality.

That is how I will always remember him.

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