As if by magic — though in reality it took an indomitable spirit, tireless cajoling, and a deep belief in music’s universal value — Ruth Widder routinely transformed the folding chairs and wooden bleachers of the Montauk School gymnasium into Lincoln Center for over two decades and counting.
Ms. Widder died at her Manhattan residence on Feb. 20. She was 84. The cause of death is not known; except for a cold the week before, she had not been ill. A memorial service was held yesterday at the Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan.
In founding Music for Montauk in 1991, Ms. Widder had more in mind than providing entertainment, much needed in Montauk’s off-season months, to the hamlet’s adult population. Her vision was to have world-class musicians perform for, and answer questions posed by, Montauk’s elementary school children during the day, and then perform for their parents and grandparents at night.
Whether it was string quartets, jazz combos, swing bands, solo virtuosi, or unfamiliar ethnic harmonies, the program became an unqualified success.
“What was so extraordinary about Ruth was that unlike so many others, she was able to somehow translate her remarkable knowledge and talent into action. When Ruth was involved, things just got done,” Bill Akin, who worked with Ms. Widder to build and expand the Music for Montauk program, said on Monday.
Ms. Widder was as gregarious as she was generous. She had a disarming charm and wry sense of humor that enlivened gatherings and no doubt softened any defenses that might have stood in the way of her good works.
She was born in the Bronx on Sept. 22, 1928, a daughter of Moritz Blasenheim and the former Fanny Wintner. Legend had it that Featherbed Lane in the Bronx, where she lived as a girl, got its name during the Revolution when residents covered the street with feather-bedding to muffle the sound of troop movements. Ms. Widder told her two daughters that she preferred an alternate derivation, that the name referred to the strong possibility that the area was a popular red-light district at the time.
She graduated from Hunter College in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. After college she joined the Freylinghousen Insurance Company. In 1955, while working for the Ruwid Corporation, a fabric manufacturing company, she married Herman Widder, an army veteran and graduate of the Wharton School of Business who became president and C.E.O. of Widder Brothers, a Pennsylvania fabric manufacturer, in 1968. At around the same time, the couple bought a house on North Greenwich Street in Montauk, where in later years Ms. Widder presided happily over many Music for Montauk post-performance gatherings.
Ms. Widder, who took over the reins of Widder Brothers after Mr. Widder died in 2001, was a philanthropist who served on Guild Hall’s board of trustees and as a director of the Mannes College of Music, now part of the New School. She was also a trustee of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and on the Visiting Committee of the Musical Instrument Collection at the Metropolitan Museum. She was closely affiliated with the Manhattan School of Music.
She made it her business to help younger musicians, including Boris Slutsky, now chair of the piano department at the Peabody Conservatory; the American String Quartet, the quartet in residence at the Manhattan School of Music, and Max Baros, a Brazilian pianist and musicologist.
In keeping with her belief in the importance of exposing children to music, she supported the Orchestra of St. Luke’s outreach in New York City schools.
Ruth Widder was an accomplished pianist in her own right, whose talent was enjoyed by many who happened to pass by her house when she was at her piano, the studio doors open and surrounded by magnificent trees and a luxurious garden. She counted an active appreciation of French language and literature among her many achievements.
Music for Montauk will continue for the forseeable future. On April 12, the Shattered Glass Music Ensemble will perform the Yale Whiffenpoofs on May 18.
Ms. Widder is survived by her daughters, Lynette Widder and Laurie Widder, who live in Manhattan and Montauk. She also leaves two grandsons and a sister, Gertrude Weber of Ivy, Va. Memorial contributions have been suggested for the Montauk Library, 871 Montauk Highway, Montauk 11954, and/or Guild Hall of East Hampton, 158 Main Street, East Hampton 11937.