The Other Yoko

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(L–R) Nadezhda von Meck, Betty Freeman, and Nica von Koenigswarter with Thelonious Monk

Few musicians are fortunate enough to have patrons. Tchaikovsky had one, a female benefactor whom he never met. Nadezhda von Meck’s largesse stipulated that he devoted himself full-time to composing, and that they would never meet. Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Barry Harris had Nica von Koenigswarter, a scion of the powerful Rothschild clan. Betty Freeman  helped Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and several other young new music composers to get on their feet.

About a month ago, I read a New York Times article about Yoko Nagae Ceschina, who passed away at the age of 82, and to whom the classical world certainly owes its debt of gratitude. Just one year younger than her more famous counterpart, Yoko Ono, the widow of the late John Lennon, this Yoko’s life was also a Cinderella story.

Alan Gilbert & Ceschinas
NY Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert with Yoko Nagae Ceschina and Zubin Mehta (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Yoko Nagae Ceschina, an ardent fan of classical music, learned piano as a child until her parents divorced, and her father decided to get rid of the piano. She later took up the harp instead, graduating with a degree in music from Tokyo National University. In 1960, she left for Rome to pursue her advanced studies of the French harp. Soon after, she met Count Renzo Ceschina, an Italian count and rich industrialist who was 25 years her senior.

Although it wasn’t love at first sight, the Count pursued her and finally won her hand after 17 years of wooing her. Sadly, the Count passed away just five years later, leaving Countess Yoko Nagae Ceschina with a very sizable inheritance.

Over the years, the countess was a benefactor of major world orchestras and venues, including Carnegie Hall, the National Youth Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg and its famous conductor, Valery Gergiev. She championed the career of a talented young violinist, Maxim Vengerov, contributing half of the $1.5 million price tag for his rare Stradivarius violin. She also created the first-ever titled Yoko Nagae Ceschina conducting chair position for Music Director Alan Gilbert and brought the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang, North Korea, for an unprecedented visit.

As a concert harpist, she recorded several records. However, after her husband passed away, she never touched the harp again. In the basement of her palazzo along the Grand Canal in Venice, twenty harps, including gold ones, were found gathering dust.

Undoubtedly, most Yoko Ono fans will never hear about this other Yoko, but her impact upon the classical world will be forever remembered by the many she championed.

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