When officials from Birmingham, Ala., expressed concerns about cellist Donald White performing with the Cleveland Orchestra during a 1961 tour stop there (both audience and performers were still segregated at that time), Orchestra conductor George Szell refused to take the stage without him. The show went on as planned — three years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tore down divisive racial barriers in Birmingham and other cities.
This month, as the Orchestra once again honors Martin Luther King Jr. with a two-day program at Severance Hall, White’s daughter, pianist Dianna White-Gould, will be among the performers. She will perform at the Jan. 19 MLK Community Open House with the musical group Classical Connections to the Harlem Renaissance.
Influenced by her musical family, White-Gould says there was never a question she’d have a career in music. “My father was a great model, but he was difficult to live up to,” she says. Her mother, Dolores White, is also a pianist and composer, and White-Gould’s brother, Darrow, is a concert violinist. “They taught us what they knew,” she says of her parents. “They were supportive of music almost to the detriment of other things.”
Today, White-Gould finds enormous reward in her career path: She is a piano and voice teacher at the Cleveland School of the Arts.
Though her father was aware of the enormity of his appointment as the first African-American member of the Cleveland Orchestra, White-Gould says she struggled with it.
“I just wanted to be normal,” she says. “When I said my father was in the Orchestra, people would look confused: ‘Does he get paid for that?’ People just didn’t understand.”
White-Gould recalls, “There were times when Szell would pass by [my father] and put his hand on his shoulder. I think he felt supported and accepted.”