Suzukis perform in benefit concert

Different islands, common bond

By Dagney C. Ernest | Aug 28, 2013
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Taro and Zeyda Ruga Suzuki spend as much time on their Hosmer Pond porch as they can. The professional musicians will play a benefit concert Saturday evening, Aug. 31, at the Rockport Opera House.  Dagney C. Ernest Loren Hitt Marc Johnson Students performing are, from left, violinists Sophie and Josie Sophie Davis; and soprano Frannie Howard-Girard.

Camden — More than 50 years ago, a young man from Japan and a young woman from Cuba came to the United States to pursue their musical passions. Circumstances both political and personal brought them together and they forged a future … and it all began in Midcoast Maine.

Classical musicians Hidetaro (violin) and Zeyda Ruga (piano) Suzuki — Taro and Zeyda to their friends and neighbors — will perform here for the first time since 1972 Saturday, Aug. 31, at 7:30 p.m. at the Rockport Opera House, 6 Central St. The occasion is a chamber music concert to benefit the Watershed School organized by clarinetist Loren Kitt, who also will play. The ensemble also features cellist Marc Johnson and local students musicians Josie and Sophie Davis (violin) and Frannie Howard-Girard (soprano).

Kitt is a Curtis Institute of Music classmate and longtime colleague of the couple, and his daughter attends Watershed, an independent high school located in Camden.

“We all graduated the same year. Loren was in every class I took, and he played with Taro,” said Zeyda at the Suzukis’ longtime summer home on Camden’s Hosmer Pond a couple of weeks before the concert.

In 1957, Taro arrived at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, founded by Camden summer resident and philanthropist Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist, having been introduced to his instrument in his homeland by Shinichi Suzuki (no relation) of the famed Suzuki Method. After graduating from the Toho School of Music, Taro came to the United States to study with violinist and Curtis director Efrem Zimbalist. String quartets, so ubiquitous now, were rare in those days, and first violinist Taro formed one at the institute.

Zeyda was enrolled at age 6 at the Municipal Conservatory of Music in her native Havana; she finished the eight-year course two years early, continued her studies privately and entered Curtis as a student of Rudolf Serkin at age 16. Taro was three years ahead of her, so they had no classes together, but she saw him perform and knew him as concertmaster.

“We came from very different islands,” she said.

Zeyda went back to visit her family after her first year in Philadelphia but by the next, 1961, the political landscape had changed.

“It wasn’t good, with the U.S., and I realized I was not going to be able to go back to Cuba,” she said. “Mr. and Mrs. Zimbalist became my mentors.”

The Zimbalists spent summers on the Midcoast and decided the teenager should come to Maine with them and study with Eleanor Sokoloff. She was to live at the busy home of Thalia May, mother of five children and host to many Curtis students. Taro and his quartet mates also were staying there.

“Our romance started here, and it’s a big reason this place has such a tremendous attraction for us,” Zeyda said of the Camden-Rockport area.

Taro proposed on their second date but Zeyda said they would have to wait a year, “because everyone would say we were too young.” When she turned 18, they discovered the State of Pennsylvania said she was still too young to marry without parental permission. Taro’s parents letter of permission arrived promptly, but mail between the U.S. and Cuba was problematic. So they went across the river to Camden, N.J., to be married at the city hall. It was quite the scene, as Zeyda recalled.

“The Sokoloffs and some Quaker friends were there — Taro had been sponsored by the American Friends Service. We were married by a Jewish judge and the clerk was Irish, so it was very ecumenical,” she said.

Going out for lunch afterwards to celebrate, the Sokoloffs ordered champagne; since the Quakers didn’t drink alcohol, Zeyda was worried there would be conflict. Then the waitress asked her age.

“In New Jersey, I could get married at 18 but I couldn’t drink! So I had a V-8, the first time I ever tasted it,” said Zeyda.

The couple continued their studies and continued summering in Rockport and Camden, even as they began their family.

“You could take the train from Boston to Rockland then,” said Taro.

The Zimbalists were both interested in having some music here in the summer, Zeyda said. Taro’s quartet was one of variables in the equation that eventually resulted in Bay Chamber Concerts. He was a friend of Andrew Wolf, with whom he played at Curtis and whose sister he taught in Philadelphia.

“Andy was adorable, we miss him! A sweet guy,” said Zeyda.

Andrew and his brother Tom — “more of the business guy,” said Zeyda — founded Bay Chamber Concerts in 1961, holding concerts in the Parish Hall of Camden’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Taro’s quartet performed in most of concerts and he performed as a soloist, as well. It was hard work, said Zeyda, who ushered the first year but soon became a perennial guest artist.

“Every concert was reviewed by Mary Sullivan, who sat upstairs,” said Zeyda of the late, longtime Courier-Gazette correspondent. “I played a recital at the White Hall Inn that she came to and got my first review in the U.S.!”

Taro’s quartet played the first two Bay Chamber summers, after which the series began bringing in other string quartets, whose number grew exponentially in the 1960s. The last time the couple performed with the series was in 1972. Zeyda remembers they were staying in the home of Lew Dietz and Denny Winter.

“Our twins learned to ride their tricycles on that big porch,” said Zeyda.

By this point, the Suzukis had both graduated from Curtis. They performed recitals together, and Taro, winner of top prizes at the Tchaikovsky, Reine Elisabeth and Montreal International violin competitions, often performed as a soloist. He was named concertmaster of the L’Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, which he occasionally conducted, and also taught at Le Conservatoire de Musique de la Province de Quėbec and Laval University in Quėbec, where Zeyda was chairwoman of the Department of Chamber Music and created L’Ensemble Instrumentale du Quėbec.

Quėbec is just a five-hour drive from the Midcoast, so they enlisted their friend and realtor Marge Jones to help them find a home they could escape to on summer weekends. She showed them the Hosmer Pond camp and that was that.

“As soon as we saw it, we fell in love with it,” said Zeyda.

The home has a wrap-around screen porch, where the couple spends much of their Camden time, and offers a view of the Snow Bowl and Ragged Mountain. A photo on the wall inside reveals its history.

“It was the first house on the lake. On March 23, 1923, they moved it across the ice to here,” said Zeyda.

The couple, their children, colleagues and friends spent many hours in Camden during the Suzukis’ 16 years in Quebec and even after they relocated to Indiana, they passed as much time as they could here. Taro served 27 seasons with the Indianapolis Symphony and many summers with the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming and Chautauqua Festival in New York. He taught at Indianapolis’ Butler University in Indianapolis and was a visiting professor of Indiana University in Bloomington. In 1980, he and Zeyda founded the chamber music series Suzuki & Friends, which ran for 27 seasons. Among the Friends was Kitt, who persuaded his longtime colleagues to join him in the Aug. 31 Watershed benefit.

“Loren performed a Mozart quintet with Taro’s quartet at Curtis, the same piece that is in this concert,” said Zeyda.

Putting their musical skills to the service of youngsters is habit for the Suzukis. Their children — two boys and a girl, including fraternal twins — were regular attendees of the YMCA’s Camp-A-Homa, and Taro performed a concert at the Bayview Street Cinema that raised funds for the former Y’s pool. This will be the couple’s first time performing in the Rockport Opera House, which was restored sometime after their Bay Chamber stint.

“The building was partly condemned back then,” said Taro.

Now retired, Taro and Zeyda live in McLean, Va. Their daughter lives in France, and both sons and their families reside nearby.

“We share the same zip code,” said Zeyda, adding that their oldest son will be attending the concert with his two children. The next generation is already used to visiting the Camden cottage. Last year, Taro and Zeda celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with all three children and five grandchildren.

“And it all began here,” said Zeyda.

Tickets are $20, $15 for students, with all proceeds going directly to Watershed School’s scholarship fund. Tickets are available at the door, or can be purchased in advance at Watershed School in Camden; call 230-7341. The event is sponsored by Watershed, Bay Chamber Concerts, French & Brawn and Cappy’s Chowder House.

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