Cellist Donald White, the first black musician in the Cleveland Orchestra, died July 31, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports.
He was hired by George Szell in 1957, and performed under Lorin Maazel and Christoph von Dohnányi before retiring in 1996.
White’s presence in the orchestra brought the ensemble into the struggle for civil rights. A 1961 appearance by the orchestra in Birmingham was nearly canceled because interracial performances were forbidden by city law. The orchestra declined to appear without White, saying that if he were prohibited from performing, the concert would not take place. The city’s mayor allowed the concert to proceed, with White.
According to the Plain Dealer, White later said in an interview that patrons came backstage after that concert to meet him and get his autograph.
White was born in Richmond, Indiana, and studied at the American Conservatory in Chicago where, at a music competition, he met his wife, pianist Delores Miller. He played in the National Association Orchestra of New York, the Hartford Symphony, and the Hartt School of Music Orchestra before being hired by Szell.
In addition to performing with the orchestra and as a soloist with such ensembles as the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Civic Orchestra, White taught at the College of Wooster and the Cleveland Music School Settlement and was active in mentoring black musicians.