Alice Chalifoux, Master Performer and Teacher, 19082008


Only a few very special musicians have an impact on the world of music that goes beyond the joy they give with their playing or the students to whom they pass on their hard-won insights and sense of excellence. The harpist Alice Chalifoux was one of these. In a career that spanned more than 60 years, she quite literally changed the way the harp was perceivedby orchestra-goers, students of the instrument and composers.

In her hands, an instrument that had been traditionally treated as a meek background voice was transformed into a dynamic force. For 66 years, students flocked to her studios at the Cleveland Institute of Music and nearby Oberlin College and Baldwin-Wallace conservatoriesand in the summers, to her legendary harp camp in Camden, Maineto acquire the new techniques of playing of which she was a leading proponent.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Chalifoux was the youngest, and most precocious, of the four children of Oliver Chalifoux, a violinist who had trained at the Paris Conservatory, and of Alice Halle Chalifoux, who played piano, violin and harp. It was the last of these that captured the heart of the couple's youngest child. At 11, young Alice persuaded her mother to give her lessons on the harp. She continued her studies at a convent school and private high school for girls.

Realizing that her gifted daughter needed a more advanced teacher, Mrs. Chalifoux approached the renowned French composer and harpist Carlos Salzedo. On hearing Alice play, he accepted her as a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, where the naturally lively and vivacious girl quickly embraced her teacher's technique of pulling the strings to effect a vibrant, singing quality.

In the summer of 1930, Chalifoux was invited to join Salzedo at his summer harp school in Maine. (When he died in 1961, Salzedo would bequeath to his most brilliant student both his house and the school, of which she would serve as director until the end of her own career.) And the following year, Nikolai Sokoloff, the first music director of the 13-year-old Cleveland Orchestra, hired Chalifoux as principal harpist. Though eyebrows were raised at the presence of a woman in the ensemble, she retained her position unchallenged under the batons of four successors: Artur Rodzinski, Eric Leinsdorf, George Szell and Lorin Maazel. She retired in 1974.

When her husband, industrial designer John Gordon Rideout, died in 1951, Chalifoux was forced to add to her busy schedule of teaching and performing the challenge of raising their five-year-old daughter, Alyce, alone. The same qualities she brought to her artistic endeavors would see her through those difficult years. Known for her warm combination of wit, caring and astuteness, she was seen by her students not only as a gifted teacher, but also as a prime force in their lives.

Chalifoux's professional honors include recognition as an artist-teacher by the American String Teacher Association in 1991, the same year that she received an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree from Bowdoin College. In 1993 she was awarded an honorary doctorate of musical arts by the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM).

In 1997, she moved to Leesburg, Virginia, to be near her daughter, Alyce Gordon Lelch, and her son-in-law. In 1998, the Alice Chalifoux Scholarship Fund was established to benefit future generations of harp students at CIM. But Alice Chalifoux never exactly retired. The inveterate teacher, eager to share what she had learned, continued to invite harpists to study with her in the beautiful setting of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

—Dennis Dooley




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