Sometime in early 1978 I received a phone call in my fifth-floor-walk-up artist’s garret in New York City. The voice at the other end said, “Hello, this is Ruggiero Ricci.” I promptly replied, “Yeah, and I’m the Pope!” And then, certain that one of my friends was playing a practical joke on me, “Who is this?”
“This is Ruggiero Ricci,” the energetic, slightly raspy voice at the other end replied.
This was how I came to meet Ruggiero Ricci, the legendary violin prodigy who survived and flourished through a long career, during which he was justly celebrated for carving out new creative space and daring ever more impossible feats, remarkable even amid the great galaxy of talent drawn to the violin in the twentieth century.
Shortly after that first phone call I went to Ruggiero’s apartment and played for him. In one of the intricate variations in Paganini’s Capriccio 24, I had learned one wrong note. Ruggiero of course heard it immediately and helped me to correct it. Over the years, we would develop a long and productive friendship during which we often discussed this sort of minutiae: questionable accidentals in various Bach movements or in Paganini.
Ruggiero was also a great storyteller. His sense of humor was without limits, both in music and away from it. Of all his many stories I think I like this one best:
One day Ruggiero was practicing in one of his many residences. In order not to disturb neighbors he was using a thick practice mute, meaning that only a faint squeak was coming from the violin. Nevertheless, after a while there was a knock on the door, and, when Ruggiero opened, a tall, elegant gentleman with a refined accent said, ”Would you be so good as to stop that practicing?” To which Ruggiero’s response was a stream of invective.
To this the elegant gentleman replied, “You ARE a nasty little man, aren’t you?”
To which Ruggiero’s even swifter response was: “Yes, I AM!”
To hear Ruggiero tell this story used to put us all rolling on the floor with laughter, partly because his delivery was always spot on, but also because it gave the sense of Ruggiero’s wonderful pugnaciousness, of his ability to take on the whole world all by himself when necessary.
It is so difficult to explain the essence of what made Ruggiero great. But if I had to say it in one word, I would say it was his eternal freshness. He never did anything on or off the violin that seemed other than completely genuine, spontaneous, and unspoiled. His intuitive way of playing belied the great musical mind and sense of structure that underlaid everything he did on the instrument. Ruggiero played completely naturally and straight from the heart always. Anything he touched seemed to have always been part of him. Now he is part of all of us forever.
August 12, 2012