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Winifred Mayes, first woman in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s string section, dies at 101

Winifred Mayes, right, with harpist Olivia Luetcke and flautist Doriot Anthony Dwyer in an undated photo when they performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Winifred Mayes, right, with harpist Olivia Luetcke and flautist Doriot Anthony Dwyer in an undated photo when they performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.Photographer unknown / Photograph provided courtesy of the BSO Archives

While rising through male-dominated orchestras decades ago, cellist Winifred Mayes wore flat-heeled shoes to blind auditions in which screens hid musicians’ identities from judges. She reasoned that the staccato clicks of high heels on a stage might reveal her gender and lower her chances.

In 1957, she broke a major barrier as the first woman the Boston Symphony Orchestra hired for its string section — chosen over 14 men, the Globe reported.

“I adored that symphony,” she told the Globe nearly a year ago.

Mrs. Mayes, who later joined the Philadelphia Orchestra, where she was a soloist under renowned conductor Eugene Ormandy, died Dec. 15 of congestive heart failure in her Sequim, Wash., home.

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In April 1970, she became part of Philadelphia Orchestra history when Ormandy appointed her assistant principal cellist. Her husband, Samuel Mayes, was the principal cellist, and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that it was believed to be the first time in the orchestra’s 70-year history that a married couple shared the principal’s stand.

Mrs. Mayes had been among five in the section who auditioned for the post, during which she “played beautifully,” Ormandy told the Inquirer.

“She played the solo in the ‘St. John Passion’ two seasons ago and I think I knew then,” he said of his decision-making process.

As assistant principal, Mrs. Mayes led the section and played solos when the principal was away, such as for vacations.

Along with her pioneering roles in Boston and Philadelphia, her legacy lives on through students she taught in Indiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Arizona.

“Her forte was really carrying across how to play musically,” said Laurie A. Jarski of Kalamazoo, Mich., a former student of hers who is now a composer and performs with the Battle Creek Symphony.

While technique was “obviously very important,” Mrs. Mayes taught students “to play musically and have the musical phrasing the endpoint, not the technique as an endpoint,” said Jarski, who owns music businesses for instruction and sales.

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In later years, Mrs. Mayes performed regularly in Arizona, where she lived in semi-retirement when her husband’s health declined. After he died in 1990, she moved back to Washington.

She and her younger sister, Lois Schaefer, a former longtime piccolo player for the Boston Pops, shared a home in Washington so they could be close to the mountains they loved to hike together.

They had grown up in Yakima, Wash., where they began their music studies. Even when they were still professional musicians with symphonies in Boston and Philadelphia, the sisters found respite from their performing lives by hiking at high altitudes.

At summer’s end, when symphonies take a break, “Lois and I would plan to take a plane to SeaTac, the Seattle airport,” Mrs. Mayes recalled in a February 2020 interview for her sister’s Globe obituary.

“We’d meet in the airport, rent a car, go to the local Piggly Wiggly and get all sorts of groceries, and head up to Mount Rainier, which we enjoyed so much as children together,” she said. “Then we would start our vigorous hiking experience doing the trails around Mount Rainer.”

The older of two sisters, Winifred Schaefer, who often went by Wini, was born in Yakima on Aug. 23, 1919.

Her father, Charles Frederick Schaefer, was a fruit industry broker, and her mother, Mary Elizabeth Wherry, set Wini and Lois on their paths to musical success.

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Their mother, a musician and schoolteacher, taught them to play piano. Wini took quickly to the lessons, and while Lois eventually settled on the flute, Wini found her way to the cello. She was part of a class of four girls taught by a woman who commuted from Seattle twice a month.

“I got to play the cello because my mother couldn’t stand the idea of a violin being practiced, but she thought a cello wouldn’t be so bad,” Mrs. Mayes recalled last year.

After high school, at her mother’s behest, she auditioned and was accepted to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

While there, she met and married Arthur Winograd, the founding cellist of the Juilliard String Quartet and later the longtime music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut.

They had a son, Nick Winograd, who now lives in Spring Mills, Pa., Their marriage ended in divorce, in part because Arthur traveled so much for concerts with the quartet.

As a single mother, she moved to Indiana, where she became principal cellist with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic at the end of the 1940s.

“When we were in Fort Wayne, we lived in this small little house,” her son said, “and every morning I would be awakened by her practicing.”

One day her sister, Lois, heard about a cello opening with the Boston Symphony, and encouraged Mrs. Mayes to apply.

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“Winifred thought that it was crazy, and her sister convinced her to go and take the audition,” cellist Hannah Holman said in a tribute to Mrs. Mayes that is posted on YouTube.

“It was the highlight of her whole life to get that job that day,” said Holman, who was a teenager when she met Mrs. Mayes. They reconnected via a Skype interview a couple of years ago.

In Boston, Winifred married cellist Samuel Mayes.

“He fell in love with the personalities and the music of different composers. He always had sensitivity in his music,” she told the Globe for his obit in 1990.

She added that “he was a delightful bad boy. He never quite grew up. He was always full of mischief. Besides his companionship I’ll miss his jokes and his twinkle.”

When he left the BSO after a dispute with conductor Erich Leinsdorf, the couple moved to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1964.

After Mr. Mayes retired from the orchestra, he taught at the University of Michigan. Mrs. Mayes remained as assistant principal for four more years, dividing her time between Philadelphia and Michigan.

Retiring in her late 50s, she joined him full time in Michigan, where she performed and taught.

“She is an incredible, humble, groundbreaker,” Holman said, “and she, I think, doesn’t even really realize all of her many contributions.”

In addition to her son, Mrs. Mayes leaves two stepsons, William Mayes of Bensalem, Pa., and Joseph Mayes of Collingswood, N.J.

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“I really looked up to Winnie and Lois both for their tenacity to fight their way through going into a man’s field, and sticking it out and making a go of it,” said Barbara Garrison, Mrs. Mayes’s daughter-in-law.

Being a woman in male-dominated orchestras wasn’t easy. When only three women were in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and women’s dressing rooms sometimes weren’t available, “my mother had to change her clothes in a shipping crate,” her son said.

Nevertheless, her time with the orchestra remained memorable, including breaking the string section gender barrier.

Although her mother had introduced her to music, “our family was not very anxious for us to be musicians. They didn’t feel it was a very dependable profession,” Mrs. Mayes recalled last year.

“Lois said, ‘You should call mother and tell her you got into the Boston Symphony,’ " she added. “So I did and there was this long pause as she thought it over. And she said, ‘Well, that’s a step up.’ ”

Mrs. Mayes was more effusive about the leap from Fort Wayne to Boston.

“I don’t know how it happened,” she said. “I did get in and it was such a wonderful thing for me. I was unbelievably happy about it.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.