• U.S.

Orchestras: The Greatest Satisfaction

3 minute read

The man from the musicians’ union blessed the evening with a bronze plaque of gratitude, and the beaming directors of Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra could be sure that the next week’s mail would bring a welcome blizzard of polite thank-you notes from the audience. With 1,no teenagers from 24 schools across the nation dutifully gathered in a Government auditorium last week, the orchestra picked up the beat and began its five-week series of 30 free “Music for Young America” concerts. And as has been the happy case for eight spring seasons now, the $100,000 budget was already covered by a gift from one of the nation’s most generous benefactresses of symphonic music, Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post Close Hutton Davies May.

Thanks largely to Mrs. May, the National now plays 84 children’s concerts a season (more than any other orchestra in the country), and since the spring series started in 1956, 163,000 junior and senior high school students on civics-class visits to Washington have come to hear the music. “They’re thrilled to be hearing good music,” Mrs. May says, “and it’s a wonderful contrast to the tripe they hear over the radio all the time.”

At Least a Million. Four times married, 76, and possessor of the $100 million Post Toasties fortune, Marjorie Merriweather Post May (as she is called for short) has long been a darling of Washington society, and long the angel of the orchestra. When Conductor Howard Mitchell suggested the free spring concerts eight years ago, Mrs. May excused herself from the board meeting, called her financial adviser and was back in a minute with the announcement that she would underwrite the concerts singlehanded. “I had just divorced the ambassador (onetime Ambassador to Moscow Joseph E. Davies),” she recalls blithely, “so I was in funds for the moment.” Though she often finds committee work with the symphony “dreadfully tedious,” Mrs. May has, over the years, enriched the orchestra with at least a million dollars.

Mrs. May’s father (the Post Toasties king) designed a player piano in 1891 and his daughter’s fascination with the contraption made her more of an impassioned listener than a player. “Why take music lessons,” she reasoned, “when I could play anything I liked and it all came out so beautifully on that marvelous thing?” With four lavish homes, a private jet plane and a blue book full of friends to divert her, she still makes sure that she has time, interest and money enough left over for the symphony. The Music for Young America concerts are her proudest philanthropy. “I’ve had greater satisfaction out of this-,” she says, “than anything since the feeding thing in the Depression.”-

Justifiably Common. The hour-long concerts are bite-sized enough for their audience, but everyone involved finds them uplifting. The orchestra’s musicians get five extra weeks’ pay beyond the 27-week regular season, and Conductor Mitchell gets to exercise his gently messianic streak with little lectures from the podium. Speaking for the city at large, the Washington Post greeted the new spring’s debut with an editorial thought that was justifiably common in Washington. “All of us owe her the warmest thanks,” it said.

-In 1929 Mrs. May gave money for a Salvation Army family feeding station in Manhattan, and she kept it open for six years.

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