Famous Sacramento Child Prodigy Turns 90
Ruth Slenczynska Kerr, a Sacramento native and at one time the most famous child prodigy since Mozart, turns 90 on January 15. According to Julliard teacher David Dubal, “She became a household word in the late 1920’s…Every parent wanted to have a little prodigy like that”. Though Ms. Slenczynska is highly regarded internationally as a pianist and piano teacher, her story is not well known in Sacramento.
Born in Sacramento in 1925, Ruth is the daughter of Josef Slenczynska, a famous violinist from the Warsaw Conservatory, who moved to Sacramento after WWI to raise her. He began teaching her music theory and harmony when she was16 months old and by the age of three, had immersed her in a rigorous piano practice routine lasting nine hours a day. Ruth gave her first professional public concert when she was 4 years old at Mills College in Oakland, followed by years of studies with famous musicians in Europe. She debuted in Berlin at the age of six and in Paris with a full orchestra at age seven on a piano adapted for her tiny size.
She became an instant musical sensation in Europe, heralded as the first child prodigy since Mozart. However, the strain of practice and the demanding touring schedule imposed upon her by her father caused her great emotional stress, and by the age of fifteen she had withdrawn from performing.
She went on to graduate from UC Berkeley with a degree in psychology, and did not resume her concert career until 1954 when she was able to do it on her own terms. She spent twenty-three years as an artist in residence at Southern Illinois University, and has since lived a full musical life in New York, performing, teaching, and adjudicating competitions. She continues to perform throughout the world. She will celebrate her 90th birthday by playing a concert in Paris where she debuted at age seven.
Sacramento should celebrate the accomplishments and spirit of Ruth Slenczynska and get to know her through her dozens of recordings and videos. Hundreds of musicians owe their careers to her inspired teaching. She has performed more than 3,000 recitals on both hemispheres and has appeared with most of the world’s greatest orchestras. The London Times once called her, “the greatest among women pianists today.” And it all began in Sacramento. To hear her talk and play, follow this link.
Photo: Ms. Slenczynska at her apartment in New York City on Oct. 7, 2014. Dorothy Hong for the Wall Street Journal