I just received the following notice:
Harpist Marcella DeCray died December 2, 2011 at her home surrounded by family. She was 83 and had pancreatic cancer.
She was born in Philadelphia on June 2, 1928 to a dressmaker and a steel tool salesman, both of whom quit school after eighth grade to work. They recognized her interest in music, first with piano then the harp. She had no siblings and was especially close to her father, who was 63 when she was born. He died when Marcella was 11, and she found solace in the harp. By then she was already being paid to perform in churches and women’s clubs.
Her mother nurtured her talent with weekly trips to New York to study with Mildred Dilling. In her late teens she went to Paris and Etretat to further her studies with Henriette Renie. By 1948 she was enrolled at Juilliard but soon quit when hired by New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as its only woman and youngest member. She would take a 12:01am train back to Philadelphia, often to return on the 8:00am train for morning rehearsals.
In 1952 she auditioned for Eugene Ormandy and was hired by the Philadelphia Orchestra where she was principal harp for 11 years. She said that during European tours, the orchestra members were treated as great luminaries, meeting heads of state, kings, and the pope. Meanwhile, she earned a B.A. at Temple University and nearly completed a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
While with the Philadelphia Orchestra she launched the harp departments at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute and the Aspen Music Festival. In 1963 she moved to San Francisco, performing for many years with the orchestras of the San Francisco Symphony and Opera. The following year she founded the harp department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and began a 45-year run as harp teacher there. Today the scores of students Marcella taught continue to play in orchestras, as soloists or teachers around the world.
She was a champion of new music, which challenged audiences to expand traditional musical horizons and performers to take on difficult parts. In 1973, she co-founded the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, one of the first ensembles of its kind in this country. And in 1980 Marcella began a 25-year tenure as principal harpist of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, where she loved the company of her fellow musicians. During this period she also served terms as treasurer of the World Harp Congress and the American Harp Society and president of its Bay Area chapter.
Beyond her prodigious talent and versatility as a musician, she was a spirited and adventurous mother, wife and friend. With the timing of a world-class musician, she knew just when to leave her home to safely race down Geary Boulevard to the Opera house. When a ballet performance had a long stretch with no harp music, she would leave the orchestra pit, go read the New Yorker and be back like clockwork to play her part, never missing a beat. She loved to travel, and had a special fondness for Paris, Etreta and Colorado, where for many summers she was principal harpist of the Aspen Music Festival and the Telluride Chamber Music Festival and took flying lessons, even piloting a plane solo. Other adventures included skiing in France and New Zealand, riding a camel in Egypt and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.
Her students knew her as an exacting teacher; her family knew her as a loving caretaker of her garden and many pets. All knew her dry wit and the gripping strength of her handshake. She was a lover of art and film and could also be a practical joker, enjoying a playful tease with her three adoring grandchildren. The warm home she created became a place where musicians and grandchildren would play with equal fervor.
Roy Malan, concertmaster of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, said, “To me Marcella has always been an inspiration both as a great artist and as a consummate professional. On top of that, she is by far the most admired and beloved member of our orchestra.”
Marcella is survived by her husband, Malcolm McAfee, her children Lexy and Lael Loewenstein, her grandchildren Ava, Dashiell and Levi, and other close family Trela Caler and Donna Carter. Donations may be sent in her name to June Hom (415-503-6201) at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
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