Nona Gainsforth; French horn player blew past stereotypes in music, life

Nona Gainsforth played French horn for the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, Boston Classical Orchestra, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and the State Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. Nona Gainsforth played French horn for the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, Boston Classical Orchestra, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and the State Symphony Orchestra of Mexico.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 23, 2010

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Nona Gainsforth Haffenreffer was easy to spot on stage. She was often the only woman playing a horn in the orchestra.

Not that it mattered. Ms. Gainsforth, who used her maiden name professionally, had little use for the status quo, particularly when it came to perceived gender roles.

“She could shoot a gun, she could ride a horse, she could drive a fast car and know everything about it mechanically, she could cook a meal, and she could play a French horn to the point where it would bring tears to your eyes,’’ said her sister-in-law, Sandra Gainsforth of Montrose, Calif.

Ms. Gainsforth kept up a busy performing schedule while awakening several times each night to care for her daughter, who has Rett syndrome, a developmental disorder.

A member of the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra who performed in the Fourth of July concerts for nearly 30 years, Ms. Gainsforth was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 and died June 11 in her Dedham home. She was 59 and had taken aim at her illness with the wit she used to confront all life’s obstacles.

When a friend called to ask how she was faring in the later stages of cancer, she replied: “Ah, chocolate and morphine, what a great combination.’’

Along with the esplanade orchestra, she was principal horn for the Boston Classical Orchestra and had performed in that role for, among others, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the State Symphony Orchestra of Mexico.

“Nona was one in a million,’’ said Pat Hollenbeck, president of the Boston Musicians’ Association. “For the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, she was not just a French horn player; she was part of the heart and soul of the ensemble for nearly three decades, a limitless source of inspiration with her courageous attitude marinated with a terrific sense of humor.’’

A quick study, Ms. Gainsforth seemed able to pick up any new pursuit and do it well, which was the case when she joined a garden club after moving to Wellesley years ago.

“I can’t tell you how many contests she won,’’ said her son, Hartford of Los Angeles. “She would come back with a first-place prize or a second place. She also was a fantastic cook, I’m not going to lie there. She was the perfect mom.’’

Music, however, is what took her from Ogallala, a small town in western Nebraska near Colorado, to stages on nearly every continent.

“She was a very gifted and talented horn player,’’ said Richard Menaul, a horn player in the Esplanade Orchestra.

Ms. Gainsforth, he added, “was equally comfortable in an evening gown at a cocktail party or in blue jeans, hanging out with the boys in the brass section.’’

That might be due to growing up with an older brother and a father who was the town dentist and made the family’s furniture, piloted his daughter around the country in an airplane, and rode horses with her at the family ranch on the outskirts of town.

“She had a fantastic childhood,’’ her son said.

Learning the intricacies of auto mechanics produced an oft-told story from her days at Ogallala High School. In 1966, she and her brother, Stanley, who died two years ago, had a Pontiac GTO, a muscle car perfect for drag races. He was two years older and left the car at home when he went to college.

One of the high school boys challenged Ms. Gainsforth to a drag race, assuming that the time had arrived to outshine the Gainsforths’ GTO. Instead, she made a few key mechanical adjustments and won by a few car lengths.

“None of the boys would speak to me after that,’’ she used to say when telling the story. “I had to import a date for the senior prom . . . and I’d do it again.’’

Through the years, she returned when possible to visit her family’s ranch.

“I spent many consecutive summers in Nebraska with Nona,’’ her sister-in-law said. “We’d ride horses. We’d sneak out at night for ice cream. We’d lie on our backs at the ranch and look up at the Milky Way.’’

Ms. Gainsforth graduated with a bachelor’s in music from Indiana University, where she studied with Philip Farkas, a renowned performer and teacher.

She moved to Mexico City and was principal horn with the state symphony orchestra before going to Montreal. There, she was principal horn for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and a founding member of the Mount Royal Brass Quintet. She also taught at McGill University.

Ms. Gainsforth’s first marriage ended in divorce, and she met and married Dr. Mark Haffenreffer after moving to Boston in the early 1970s. They divorced last year.

In the Boston area, she performed with several orchestras and ensembles and also taught at Wellesley College.

“At the age of 14, everybody in her class had to say what they wanted to be when they grew up, and she said she wanted to be a principal French horn in a major orchestra,’’ her son said.

Though she often was the only woman in the brass section “she never ever complained,’’ he said. “She always got along with everybody, which I think was part of the reason why she was the female who was the exception.’’

Friends were equally impressed that she accomplished so much while caring for her daughter, Anne, up until the past month, when illness stopped Ms. Gainsforth from climbing stairs.

Earlier this month, about a week before Ms. Gainsforth died, “she said to me, ‘After going through this whole thing, I realize that people don’t fear death;they fear having to get there,’ ’’ her son said.

Ms. Gainsforth, he said, found the pain of treatment difficult to endure and feared watching her loved ones lose hope more than she feared death itself.

The family held a service for Ms. Gainsforth on Monday, gathering friends and musicians to pay tribute to the example she set.

“I noticed what an amazing close circle of friends she had, people who would walk a hundred miles for her,’’ her sister-in-law said. “In the end, you measure people by what they leave behind, and people were changed by knowing her. She just made me a better person because she brought grace and beauty and humor into my life. That’s just how life is supposed to be.’’