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Mary McDonald.Courtesy of the family

Mary McDonald: Pianist. Cherished aunt. Friend. Inspiration. Born May 16, 1921, in Toronto; died Jan. 25, 2019, in Toronto, of pneumonia; aged 97.

Mary was the oldest of eight children. She grew up in a Toronto household filled with music and inspired by the arts. Much of that inspiration came from her father, Joseph McDonald, a boy soprano from Glasgow who migrated to Canada as a teen after his parents died.

Joseph eventually took leading roles with the Canadian Grand Opera, the precursor to the Canadian Opera Company. At the tender age of 13, Mary was recruited to play for the company’s rehearsals, as they didn’t have funds to pay for a professional accompanist. This experience helped Mary develop her formidable sight-reading skills.

Mary went on to study piano in New York, before moving to Baltimore after getting the Peabody Institute’s first ever triple scholarship in piano, voice and opera. She made her musical debut in Canada at the Eaton Auditorium in 1944 and launched her 35-year career with the National Ballet of Canada in 1958.

As principal pianist, she helped to nurture the talent of many young dancers, while accompanying some of the world’s most renowned performers, from Karen Kain to Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. She also toured extensively with the ballet, including a trip to Russia in 1973 to accompany Kain and Frank Augustyn at the Moscow International Ballet Competition. Mary was given the award as top pianist, ahead of pianists from 22 other countries.

Mary’s relationship with the Russians continued after her return to Canada. Her first meeting with the mercurial Nureyev was particularly noteworthy. Apparently miffed that he hadn’t been given a “proper” welcome by the ballet company leadership, Nureyev decided to take it out on Mary, criticizing her for her tempo. Mary tartly responded, “I don’t tell you how to dance, so don’t tell me how to play!” Nureyev grinned with delight at her audacity and a mutual respect was born.

Mary was a mother figure in the ballet company, frequently giving comfort to young dancers on the road. “Mary had the soggiest shoulders in the company!” one of her colleagues remembered. For her part, Mary once declared: “I can’t cut myself off from my family at the National Ballet any more than I could from my own natural family. They are my life.”

Our Aunt Mary never married, which allowed her to be a constant presence in our young lives. She babysat us, gave us piano lessons, took us to the movies and, when we learned how to drive, even lent us her car when on tour. She would also take us along to ballet rehearsals and invited me to sit with her in the orchestra pit once during a performance of The Nutcracker – a heady experience for a young child!

Mary was also a woman of deep faith who was extraordinarily kind and generous. She regularly welcomed newcomers from abroad, hosted wedding parties for several young couples recently arrived in Canada without family, and even paid for a honeymoon in Niagara Falls for one of them.

Finally, Mary enjoyed the occasional Scotch, often uttering to whoever was pouring: “Don’t drown it!” When reminded in her 97th year that she was the longest liver in her family, her retort was: “Maybe I can attribute that to the hooch!”

We will miss her deeply, but the laughter, the music and the memories will live with us forever.

Joe Bolger is Mary’s nephew.

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