Blast Radius

From growing up on a Depression dairy farm to playing for the TSO

My 91-year-old neighbour Dorothy White’s fascinating path from Missouri to midtown Toronto

Whenever I travelled to the bowels of my midtown apartment building to dig out the Christmas tree, or my daughter’s bike, or any other artifact my wife and kids needed, I would pass by a storage area that harboured a large harp case.

My imagination immediately ventured into the world of horror — perhaps a symptom of reading too many Stephen King books. But, being the journalist I am, I had to find out who owned the relic draped in dust and sporting stickers as badges of history.

Through a mix of people, I was connected with the owner, Dorothy White, and learned that she had once been a second harpist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

I’m glad I reached out to her because the 91-year-old had a fascinating path that brought her to Toronto from Springfield, Missouri.

I sat with her in her apartment and learned how she learned her craft from some of the biggest names in classical music: harpists Marcel Grandjany, Lily Laskine, Alice Chalifoux and flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal.

Her parents, a dairy farmer and housewife, kept their homestead during the Great Depression and managed to send their son, and daughter, to college.

Dorothy went to Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio to study flute and, because she “was not fond of her piano teacher,” chose the harp as her minor. From there, she took a teaching job at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Then she travelled to the University of Texas at Austin to teach before applying for a Woolley Scholarship at the Fondation des États-Unis.

That means she lived in France for two years. And she lived in New York City too and worked with the renowned harpist, Marcel Grandjany.

How she managed to come up to Toronto, though, was fortuitous, as Canada was experiencing a shortage of harpists and famous composer John Fenwick needed one for the Royal Alex’s Anne of Green Gables back in 1967.

“Someone gave my name to the conductor of Anne of Green Gables — it was John Fenwick — and he sent me a telegram asking, ‘Can you come to Toronto and play Anne for five or six weeks at the Royal Alex?’” White said, nestled in a chair.

While performing with Fenwick, the National Ballet of Canada asked her to be their harpist for the Nutcracker.

“So, I said yes and I decided to try and stay here. I went back to New York and got everything I needed to come back here,” she recalled. “There were some perilous years, but very enjoyable.”

Eventually, she made her way up to Yonge and Eglinton, where she’s lived since 1969.

White was never under contract with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, but she was asked by Judy Loman to come on as a second harp for the performance of 1776. White performed under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis and Günther Herbig.

“I was so fortunate to study with Laskine and Grandjany in New York and Rampal,” she said.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned harp case that sits in the basement of the apartment building is empty. White had two harps, and the older one was donated to a local school.

“My old harp, I had used it so much that there was noise when you changed pedals,” she said. “That became the harp that stayed here. I bought a better harp to use in playing and concerts.”

That good harp was sold four years ago to a young girl, whose parents had been seeking out the instrument. It was not a tough decision to sell, as White admitted arthritis in her knees makes it tough to transport any physical instruments, flute and harp.

“Was it difficult for me to sell it? No, because the young girl whose parents bought it was so talented, I know it would be used well,” she said. “They loved it. For a while, I kept in touch with them to learn what she was doing.”

For me, the harp always reminds me of Harpo Marx’s shenanigans, and White assured me, Grandjany once taught the vaudeville star, albeit with a hint of disdain.

“[Harpo]) couldn’t read music. He just played by ear, so I think Mr. Grandjany was not too happy,” she said with a laugh.

It made me laugh, too. And it also made me realize, sometimes it pays to talk with your neighbours, as you never know what adventures have brought them to Toronto.

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