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Tom and Mary Beck. (Family Photo).

When Mary Manoville and Tom Beck arrived in Canada in the early 1950s, Toronto was a refuge from war-torn Europe, but it did not offer the kind of culture they had experienced in the cities from which they arrived – Vienna and London, respectively. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was an exception, a place they were both drawn to and attended whenever they could afford the money for tickets and – once they met and married – babysitting.

In 1963, the Becks purchased a little lighting company, called Noma, that would grow into a big corporation and one synonymous with Christmas. Their new-found financial comfort allowed them to attend the symphony – often with their children – to donate funds to the organization, and allowed Tom to sit on the board for 22 years, some of that as chair.

Tom died in 2016 and Mary in 2018. Their daughter Cathy Beck became the TSO’s board chair in 2016. On Thursday night at Roy Thomson Hall, where incoming artistic director Gustavo Gimeno conducted the TSO, the orchestra’s chief executive officer Matthew Loden announced a $10-million donation from the Becks’ estate – the largest single donation in the TSO’s history. The bequest comes after a few rocky years at the organization – financially and otherwise – that preceded Loden.

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“For the scale and scope of this organization, we’ve never had a gift like this,” Loden, who was appointed last year, told The Globe and Mail ahead of Thursday’s announcement. He added that over their lifetime, the Becks had donated more than $20-million to the TSO. “It’s a very rare breed of philanthropist that is so wonderfully altruistic and is not asking for anything other than for the organization to thrive and for other people to know about it and to get involved and to follow their example.”

Loden never met Tom, but ahead of the public announcement last year that Loden would be joining the TSO from the Philadelphia Orchestra, he met with Mary in the sunroom of her home, where, over a good Pinot Noir, they discussed Mahler and Mozart, she regaled him with stories about her life in Vienna and how she and Tom met in Toronto.

“She was immediately interested in making me comfortable as the new guy,” he recalls. “I don’t know if that’s a result of her own immigrant experience where she knows what it’s like to start out as an outsider, but I felt incredibly welcomed. And I really appreciated and treasure the fact that we had that moment together.” She died a few months later, in August, 2018.

In a separate interview, the Becks’ three children, Anthony, Liddy and Cathy Beck, described the role the TSO played in their lives.

“My parents believed that culture was an important aspect of what made a city livable and enjoyable,” Anthony says. “And they wanted to ensure that this particular avenue of culture, this particular opportunity, would exist and continue to thrive beyond their lives. And they hope that it would inspire others to come and hear music and share in their passion.”

Both were Hungarian Jews – Mary, who was born in 1935 in what is now Budapest, went into hiding with her family in 1944. After the war, concerned about Soviet rule, she left for Austria in 1948. Tom, born in 1926, had left Hungary for London in August, 1939, to go to boarding school, later training as a high-voltage electrical engineer.

“When he got to England, not being an English-speaking person, the school didn’t know what to do with him,” Anthony says. “They took him at any opportunity to the symphony. Music is a universal language. It doesn’t matter your language skill set and I think that was where he became really exposed. It really made a lasting impression on him.”

In Toronto, Tom had trouble getting a job as an electrical engineer because he was Jewish, his children recall, so he went into business for himself. And over the years, their devotion to and connection with the TSO deepened.

“When the symphony was in such big trouble, and there was a question whether we would have a symphony, that was just something that was so devastating to our parents,” says Liddy, referring to severe financial difficulties in the late 1980s and early nineties. “They felt it was really important for a city and they wanted that to be something available to everybody.”

This new gift from their estate is being used in a number of ways. It has helped reduce the accumulated deficit to $2.6-million (that’s down 79 per cent since June, 2013).

The donation will go toward expanding the chamber music program, offering more relaxed concerts for people on the neurodiverse or autism spectrum, and toward musician-led programs.

Philosophically, it is a fresh start – after financial problems and other recent messes: the resignation in 2016, after media reports arising from his divorce, of president and CEO Jeff Melanson (“I’m sorry, who?” Loden joked when asked about that), then the resignation a few months later of the board chair and several other members, after which Cathy became chair.

Cathy says Mary encouraged her during that difficult time and offered valuable advice, just as she had done for Tom when he was chair.

“It was a difficult time. And I had only been on the board for six months. But I took it and I thought I’d run with it and do whatever I could to see the symphony thrive," Cathy says. "And I know that would make my parents very happy.”

Loden says Cathy is one of the reasons he left Philadelphia for the TSO. And he’s excited to be part of the TSO’s turnaround under her leadership as chair, aided now with this historic gift.

“I absolutely feel like it’s a new chapter for the organization,” Loden says. “The trick of course is even though it’s incentivizing and incredibly exciting and motivating and gives the organization momentum, we still have a lot of work to do.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date when Cathy Beck became the TSO’s board chair. She took over the position in 2016.

Editor’s note: (Oct. 11, 2019) This article has been updated to correct the date Tom Beck died.

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