Symphony president has lived a life in music
GREENWICH — When World War II drove 17-year-old Mary de Csepel and her family out of Hungary in 1944, she spent two years in Portugal before coming to the U.S. in 1946 on a small freighter to the East Coast.
Accompanying her on that boat were only 11 other people, Portuguese fishermen and their wives and a Russian couple.
As a child in Hungary, she studied at a conservatory in Budapest and practiced piano regularly with aspirations to become a piano teacher. She continued on that path in the United States.
“I went to Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio,” she said this week, while sitting in her home office in Riverside. “It’s the finest school. I was turning 19 that summer. My date of getting to the U.S was May 8, and I think of that every year.”
She made the trip to Ohio by train.
“Nobody was flying those days, and I looked around and it was beautiful,” she said. “It was all flat — but Hungary is all flat. The great part of Hungary, the soil is so magnificent you could grow anything. And I took one look at it and said, ‘This is where I want to be.’ It was beautiful.”
Fast forward 71 years: Mary Radcliffe, 90, lives with her husband Richard in their eastern Greenwich home and still focuses much of her time on music. In 2018 she will have served as president of the Greenwich Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors for 35 years.
“I know she lives for it,” said Nancy Mazzoli, program and advertising co-chair for the symphony, “and it’s like a child for her, I’m pretty sure. I know that having gone to the symphony as a regular person, when she gets up and speaks to the audience it comes from her heart.”
“The greatest thing my parents ever did for me,” Radcliffe said, “was get me those piano lessons when I was 5 years old.”
“She remembers going to the opera in a sleigh,” said Danny Miller, GSO principal cellist and personnel manager. “She has this whole Old World dedication to music that many modern board members don’t demonstrate, not to detract from what they do, but she has this visceral blood line to music. And she cares deeply about musicians.”
After graduating from Oberlin in 1949 with a Bachelor’s degree in piano, Radcliffe went to the Manhattan School of Music for her master’s and met her husband at a cocktail party in New York City when she was 29 and he was 32.
The two moved to a small house in Riverside when they had their first of four sons, before moving farther up the road to where they are settled currently.
Throughout her career, Radcliffe taught piano privately. She said it took her some time to discover the Greenwich Symphony Orchestra while raising four young boys when she first moved to town — walking with their carriages around the loop on Winthrop Drive and becoming a part of the tight-knit neighborhood community — but it didn’t take her long to get involved once she did.
Ruth Sims, former first selectman of Greenwich and an Oberlin graduate, first asked Radcliffe to join the board of directors during the late 1970s. She became president of the board in 1983.
“It’s been a privilege to work with this orchestra,” said Radcliffe Wednesday. “I heard this orchestra and I just knew it was an excellent orchestra.”
She said she is excited for what 2018 will bring — not just her 35th year as president and the end of GSO’s 60th season, but a celebration of historical significance.
“In 1918, the French composer Debussy, he died that year,” Radcliffe said. “But who was born that year? Leonard Bernstein. So for the 100th anniversary ... it’s something to remember, something to connect with.
“And you know,” the GSO board president said, “that gift of those composers, nobody is ever going to be able to thank them because they are all dead.”
Select pieces by both composers will be highlighted in the programs.
“She has this attitude,” Miller said. “Music is more than a career, it’s more than entertainment — it’s something that you do physically, it’s a practice that you have to train for — but it’s also something very intellectual, but it’s also very spiritual, and she gets that. And that’s what she wants to bring to the young people in Greenwich and Fairfield County.”
Email Jennifer Turiano at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @jturianoGT and Instagram: @greenwichgreen.