Ruggiero Ricci, 94; violinist mastered wide range of music
NEW YORK — Ruggiero Ricci, a virtuoso violinist who first awed audiences at age 10 with his mastery of Mendelssohn and later remade himself into a mature musician whose range reached from the 19th-century acrobatics of Paganini’s Caprices to premiere performances of contemporary works, died Sunday at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by his son Gian-Franco.
Mr. Ricci grew up in San Francisco, the son of an Italian immigrant and amateur trombonist who insisted that all seven of his children learn to play musical instruments.
Mr. Ricci preferred the piano, but his parents had other plans.
‘‘They bribed me with fiddles,’’ he told The New York Times in 1976. ‘‘I’d wake up in the morning, and there would be another one. Once I had five fiddles under my bed.’’
By 6, Ruggiero was taking lessons from Louis Persinger, who was also teaching another neighborhood prodigy, Yehudi Menuhin.
‘‘If it weren’t for Menuhin, I wouldn’t be here,’’ Mr. Ricci said. ‘‘He is four years older than I am, and he got everyone thinking about prodigies. But believe me, when you find a prodigy, you find an ambitious parent in the background.’’
He made his performance debut in San Francisco in 1928, playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, and soon toured New York and Europe. Critics raved when he played the Mendelssohn in Manhattan in 1929.
‘‘More than one young gentleman has fiddled nimbly and accurately through these passages and been puffed in the press and in a little while has permanently disappeared,’’ Olin Downes wrote in The New York Times. ‘‘But there are sound reasons for the belief that the tone and the talent heard last night will mature as regards physical strength and poetical expression, since taste, feeling, and an admirable sense of proportion were the distinguishing qualities of last night’s performance.’’
The article described Ruggiero as 9 years old. He was actually 11, but his promoters shaved two years to make him seem even more precocious. It was not the only way his identity had been manipulated.
His parents initially named him Woodrow Wilson Rich but later gave him his Italian-sounding name because it seemed a better fit for a musical prodigy. Throughout his life he was called Roger.
‘‘Until the 1950s or 1960s, his passport said ‘Woodrow Wilson Rich, a.k.a. Ruggiero Ricci,’ ’’ Gian-Franco Ricci said.
By 1930, after Ruggiero had moved to New York with Persinger and begun earning substantial pay for performances, he became the center of a highly publicized custody dispute. Years earlier, his father, Pietro Ricci, had given custody of Ruggiero and his younger brother Giorgio to an assistant of Persinger, Beth Lackey. (Giorgio, named George Washington at birth, went on to become a studio cellist.) At one point, the boys ran away from Lackey, and Pietro Ricci later successfully fought to regain custody of the boys. But his son did not necessarily trust his motives and often said his father was trying to exploit him.
As Ruggiero advanced into his teenage years, some critics suggested that his technical talent was overtaking his interpretive ability. Yet it was at this time that Mr. Ricci began mastering the music that would later help him reinvigorate his career: the 24 Caprices, Paganini’s fiery and daunting works for solo violin. He played the pieces frequently during World War II, alone on stages in front of soldiers while he served as an ‘‘entertainment specialist’’ in the US Army Air Forces. After the war, he became the first to record the works unaccompanied, in 1947.
‘‘I forced myself in that direction because nobody had taken that road,’’ he told the Times. ‘‘I had to make a comeback.’’
He toured and taught for the next five decades, working at Indiana University, Juilliard, and elsewhere and performing a vast repertory that included Paganini, as well as works by Bach and many other composers.
In 1963, he performed the premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, which had commissioned the work for the opening of Lincoln Center that year.
Mr. Ricci made more than 500 recordings. His last public performance was at the Smithsonian Institution in 2003.
Mr. Ricci was born in San Francisco. His father had worked as a miner in Colorado. His mother was born in the United States.
Mr. Ricci’s first two marriages ended in divorce.
In addition to Gian-Franco, his son from his second marriage, he leaves his wife, Julia; a sister, Emma Ricci, a former violinist with the Metropolitan Opera; two children from his first marriage, Riana Muller and Roger; a daughter from his second marriage, Paolo Hopp; and several grandchildren.
Mr. Ricci was often associated with Paganini, but he had learned to resist categorization.
‘‘He didn’t want to define himself,’’ Gian-Franco Ricci said. ‘‘He used to say, ‘A specialist is somebody who plays all the other types of music worse.’ ’’