Oberlin Conservatory Launches Dolores '54 and Donald '57 White Prize

Annual honor supports student leadership in elevating diversity through performance-based projects.

November 12, 2021

Erich Burnett

Dolores White '54 seated in Stull Recital Hall.
Dolores White '54 returned to Oberlin in November 2021 for a performance of her composition "Crystal Gazing" by the Contemporary Music Ensemble. She is seen here seated at the piano in Stull Recital Hall.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Throughout their long and distinguished careers, Dolores and Donald White overcame artistic and social barriers they encountered in numerous settings: from the classrooms where they learned and taught, to the stages where Mr. White performed as a cellist for the Cleveland Orchestra.

They were Black artists making their way in a classical music world populated overwhelmingly by white men for many years, and they took each new step in their journey with great enthusiasm and curiosity.

Now Mrs. White is playing a pivotal role in ensuring that future generations of young artists at Oberlin are empowered to do the same.

Mrs. White, a 1954 graduate of Oberlin Conservatory who devoted her professional life to performing, composing, and teaching music, has established a prize fund to support student performance-based projects that elevate Oberlin’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging—key initiatives throughout the institution’s history that continue to be a top priority.

All conservatory students will be eligible to vie for the Dolores '54 and Donald '57 White Prize. An annual winner will be determined by a panel of Oberlin faculty and staff who represent a diversity of perspectives and expertise. Winners will be selected on the basis of their demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging—in particular their demonstration of these values in musical programming and artistic work—and demonstrated excellence in musical performance.  One winner will be selected annually to receive a cash prize recognizing a performance-based project. 

The inaugural prize will be awarded in the 2022-23 academic year; additional details about the prize will be announced at a later date.

All participating students will be encouraged to explore the catalog of Mrs. White’s compositions and program a work of hers for performance, though no stipulations on repertoire will be imposed.

“We are incredibly grateful to Mrs. White for her generous gift and for the far-reaching effect it will have on Oberlin and our students,” says Dean of the Conservatory William Quillen.

“The Dolores and Donald White fund and prize will inspire students, catalyze future work, and recognize their accomplishments for years to come. It will be transformative for their lives and for the life of our institution, and we are deeply thankful to Mrs. White for the inspiration she brings now and will continue to bring through this generous gift.”

A Life of Learning

A native of Chicago, Dolores White was influenced at a young age by the life and career of Natalie Hinderas ’45, the acclaimed Oberlin-born pianist and educator recognized by The New York Times as "one of the first black artists to establish an important career in classical music." Hinderas’ early recital tours across the continent included church concerts in Black communities; one of those was at a Chicago church attended by an adolescent Mrs. White and her family.

Mrs. White was also inspired by artists she first viewed as role models and who later became her friends: Frances ’45 and George Walker ’41. The careers of these sibling graduates were marked by countless firsts among Black artists, including George Walker’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize for composition. Frances Walker, the first tenured Black female professor at Oberlin, taught piano in the conservatory from 1976 to 1991.

Donald and Dolores White.
Dolores White devoted great time and energy
to supporting the career of her husband,
Cleveland Orchestra cellist Donald White.
(photo courtesy Dianna White-Gould)

After beginning her education at Howard University, Mrs. White transferred to Oberlin, where she earned a Bachelor of Music in piano performance. Years later, she completed a master’s degree in piano and composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music. She taught from 1972 to 2000 at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, where she introduced a course on African American music—a move inspired more by her own enthusiasm to learn than by an existing aptitude for the subject.

“I’m not exceptional,” she declares matter-of-factly when asked about her legacy. “I wasn’t an exceptional pianist. But I’ve always thought the average person needs to know about different cultures. It’s important to have exposure to different music, different genres, and different histories.” It’s a key reason she has immersed herself in world cultures for years, through her musical interests and through travel and study in destinations including Africa, Cuba, and South America.

By the late 1980s, Mrs. White had reached a confidence in her compositional voice and started securing prizes at competitions. She describes her work as centered in a Western art music tradition and reaching into the rich resources of American music that draws on ethnic and international materials. In 1993 she was commissioned by the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra to write an orchestral piece for the centennial celebration of the Chicago World’s Fair; the resulting work, Salute to the Arts, was premiered at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Her composition Give Birth to the Dream, inspired by the Maya Angelou poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra and performed on Martin Luther King Day 1998 at Cuyahoga Community College. Her works have been presented by the Detroit Symphony, Dallas Symphony, and Cleveland Chamber Symphony, as well as vocal and chamber ensembles.

Mrs. White has presented at numerous conferences, including the Feminist Theory and Music Conference and at the 90th anniversary of the National Association of Negro Musicians—the organization so influential in exposing her to Hinderas and other classical musicians in her youth. Earlier this year, she was the state of Ohio’s winning composer in the Franz Liszt International Piano Festival and Competition; her work Sound Echoes was performed by each contestant in the competition, with a prize awarded for the best performance.

“We Were Different, and I Can Understand That”

Raised in a large family in Richmond, Indiana, Donald White served in the U.S. Navy before earning a degree in music at Roosevelt University in Chicago and a master’s degree at the University of Hartford, through which he earned the role of assistant principal cellist of the Hartford Symphony. In 1957 he won a seat in the Cleveland Orchestra under legendary music director George Szell. He was the famed orchestra’s first Black member and one of the first Black members of any major orchestra in America.

Mr. White’s resilience and that of the orchestra was tested in 1961 when an appearance in Birmingham, Alabama, was nearly canceled because local law forbade interracial performance. The orchestra refused to perform without Mr. White, and the mayor interceded to overrule the ordinance.

Throughout his long career, Mr. White stoically experienced numerous occasions of racism—as well as unwavering support from the Cleveland Orchestra and others.

For many years, Mrs. White devoted her efforts to supporting her husband’s career, including frequent chamber music performances together. She, too, weathered instances of racism and sexism—and limited opportunities—in her ongoing education and in other settings. But she has endured to age 89 with no trace of lingering bitterness. For much of their lives, she fondly recalls, they were treated almost like royalty by many.

“We had to prove to the audiences of Cleveland that we belonged there,” she says of their early years together. “We were different, and I can understand that.

“We had to perform because we were on display as Black people. The newspapers were full of stories about ‘the first Black man in the Cleveland Orchestra,’ and other members of the orchestra were asked if they minded playing with a Black person.

“It wouldn’t have mattered if they wanted to play or not,” she adds with a sly smile. “If George Szell was in, there was nothing they could do.”

“A Tremendous Feeling”

Mr. White retired from the Cleveland Orchestra in 1996 after a 39-year career. In the years that followed, the Whites remained active educators at the nonprofit Music Settlement in Cleveland. He also taught at the College of Wooster and at Western Reserve Academy, and enjoyed serving as an adjudicator for the Sphinx Organization, a leading supporter of classical music careers for Black artists. Mr. White died in 2005.

“My husband and I loved what we were doing,” Mrs. White says. It’s a theme that resonates throughout talk of their lives together.

She remembers Oberlin fondly as a place where individuals of all cultures and backgrounds could thrive in ways that seemed all but impossible elsewhere. Her gift to the conservatory stems from her enduring sentiment that the same holds true today.

Dolores White with orchestra musicians.
Dolores White attended a November 10 rehearsal of
her work "Crystal Gazing," performed by Oberlin's
Contemporary Music Ensemble on November 12.
(photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones '97)

She returned to campus this month for a performance of her orchestral work Crystal Gazing, which was commissioned by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony and completed in 1998. It was rehearsed and performed in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel—a favorite haunt in her student years—by the Contemporary Music Ensemble, under the direction of Timothy Weiss. Mrs. White and her children, daughter Dianna White-Gould ’84 and son Darrow White, visited campus the week of the performance.

“It’s a tremendous feeling,” Mrs. White says of the opportunity to give back to Oberlin through the White Prize. “It means that all the decisions I made—as far as coming to Oberlin, making the decision to stay here, and enjoying it—all the things I’ve encountered have really blossomed. And I feel truly indebted.”

For more information about Oberlin’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, please read the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity and the conservatory’s Racial Equity and Diversity Action Plan, both published in 2020.

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